Archived Story

Health Beat, Teens and sleep

Published 6:46pm Saturday, August 16, 2014

By Tamara L. Stevens, MA

If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, you know that there’s a lot of truth to the stereotype that teens stay up late, then sleep the day away.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, most teens need about nine hours of sleep each night, yet few actually get that much.  In fact, some estimates indicate that as many as 30 percent of children have sleep problems, yet these are often misdiagnosed as mood, attention, or “attitude” problems.  With such odd sleep habits, how can you be sure your adolescent is sleeping enough?  Furthermore, how would you know if your teen had a sleep disorder?

After puberty, sleep patterns shift, making kids feel more awake later at night.  Because school and other responsibilities prevent them sleeping in most days, teens are at greater risk for sleep deprivation.  Unfortunately, that late-night alertness doesn’t go away just because they are sleep deprived.  Unlike adults, teens can’t catch up on sleep by simply going to bed earlier, because they will still have trouble falling asleep.

In addition, many adolescents now entertain themselves at night with computers, phones, or tablets.  With the increased pressures of school, peer relationships, and perhaps jobs, teenagers may be more prone to bedtime worries, so this nighttime entertainment also serves as a welcome distraction from all that anxiety.  Unfortunately, these backlit devices can further disrupt sleep cycles by tricking the brain into thinking it is still daytime.  The brain then produces less of the chemicals we need to go to sleep, perpetuating the sense of nighttime wakefulness.

In addition to sleep cycle changes, teens are also at risk for sleep disorders—true medical problems that prevent adequate sleep.  Obvious sleep problems such as night terrors or sleepwalking are more common among younger children, but teens are more likely to suffer from less obvious disorders such as sleep apnea.  Perhaps the most common problem for teens is a circadian rhythm imbalance, which occurs after the teen repeatedly stays up very late and sleeps very late, so much that the normal teenage shift in sleep timing becomes even more exaggerated and difficult to reverse.

Inadequate sleep affects many areas of a teen’s life, so it’s important to recognize signs of sleep problems.  A persistent habit of sleeping very late (until early afternoon) can reflect sleep difficulty.  Chronic fatigue, irritability, and daytime sleepiness are also indicators.  Kids who lack sufficient sleep have significant difficulty with concentration and therefore may appear inattentive; grades slip and motivation wanes.

In addition to daytime symptoms, certain behaviors during sleep can be a clue as well.  Kids who sleepwalk obviously have some disruption in typical sleep patterns, but more common signs, such as frequent twitching or jerking, frequent snoring, or frequent nighttime awakenings can accompany sleep disorders.  In addition, feeling excessively fatigued upon awakening, even after a reasonable duration of sleep, can reflect problems such as sleep apnea.  Frequent falling asleep during the day can also be a sign.

People with sleep disorders are at higher risk for developing later health problems such as obesity, hypertension, or stroke.  Of particular importance for teens, too, is the increased risk of traffic accidents among people with sleep disorders.  Compounding the effects of sleep deprivation with a teen’s new, tenuous driving skills can have deadly consequences.

If you have concerns about your child’s sleep, talk to him about his perceived quality of sleep, fatigue during the day, or concentration problems at school.  While your pediatrician is the first place to start, he or she might not be as familiar with sleep disorders in teens as a sleep specialist would be.  Therefore, if problems persist, consult a specialist familiar with sleep disorders.  In many cases, a detailed interview can identify problems and treatment strategies.  In more serious cases, the doctor might recommend a sleep study to identify potential problems.  Teens may be natural night owls, but one who is struggling to function as he should needs to be checked out.

Tamara Stevens, MA is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 946-4134.


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