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As a pediatrician, I have a lot of interesting conversations with my young patients and their parents. One of the most common topics is rarely a medical problem at all—it’s sleep.
Young patients tend to establish habits and routines that regularly keep them from getting a good night’s sleep. That’s called poor sleep hygiene, which can cause longer-lasting health effects than just a grumpy mood in the morning.
Teenagers between 13 and 18 years need 8-10 hours of sleep every night to stay healthy. But the data say we have a long way to go: 7 out of 10 high schoolers don’t get enough sleep.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, female students are more likely to sleep less than eight hours per night, and high school seniors tend to get a full night’s sleep less often than younger students.
Sleep is an important contributor to a person’s overall health. So if your student has developed erratic sleeping habits over the summer, it’s time to help them get back on track.
Why is sleep important?
Sleeping allows the body and brain an opportunity for daily rest and recharge. The brain works hard sorting received information, and the body restores itself for another day.
When we don’t get enough sleep, it can lead to trouble concentrating and poor performance in school. When children and teenagers don’t get enough sleep, they have a higher risk of health problems such as:
- Attention and behavior problems
- Mental health challenges
- Type 2 diabetes
9 tips to build healthy sleep habits.
- Be consistent: My number one tip for building healthy sleep habits is to be consistent. Turn out the lights and get into bed at bedtime. Set an alarm for the morning and get up when it goes off. Like so many things with kids, routine helps. Train your brain to expect sleep and it will be ready. Try to stick to this routine on weekends, too.
- No naps: Even if your teen is tired after school, avoid sleeping when it’s not bedtime. This will help them fall asleep easier at bedtime and wake rested.
- Avoid electronics: Social media, games, and videos stimulate the brain, and giving it a lot of input before bedtime can make sleep difficult. That’s why sleep experts recommend absolutely no electronics in the bedroom—no TV, video games, tablets, or cell phones—and no devices for an hour before bedtime. Some parents disconnect the wifi to help avoid temptation.
- Try a relaxing activity: Reading, coloring, doing puzzles, or a taking shower are great ways to wind down without overstimulating the brain.
- Fall asleep in your own bed: Don’t let them drift off on the couch or in an easy chair; for the best sleep, they should start and finish in bed. Keep your child’s sleeping environment dark and cool to promote sleep.
- Use the bed for sleep only: Many teens use their bed as a home base for activities like schoolwork, gaming, socializing, and more. But the brain should recognize getting into bed as part of a sleep routine rather than a time to be stimulated. Encourage your child to find another place for non-sleep activities and reserve the bed for rest.
- Avoid caffeine: It’s tempting for teens to grab a sugary drink or cup of coffee to get through the evening, but teens should stop caffeine intake by 3 or 4 p.m.
- Get regular exercise: Using your body makes it tired and ready to fall asleep. Take advantage of P.E. class, sports, and opportunities to walk during the day.
- Be patient: Change is hard. It took time to develop poor sleep hygiene, and it’s going to take time to build healthy habits. Expect to start seeing benefits after about two weeks.
When is it time to see the doctor?
Sometimes, poor sleep is about more than habit. If you have concerns about your child’s mood, talk with a doctor. Insomnia can be a symptom of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, including in children and teens.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15% of teenagers reported at least one major depressive episode in 2022, and 18% of teens reported feelings of anxiety. These can have a significant impact on sleep, so be sure to speak with your pediatrician if your child is experiencing excessive worry, fear, or persistent sadness.
When I see young people and their parents for well visits, we spend a lot of time talking through how building healthy habits can help prevent serious, long-term conditions in adulthood. Putting in the time and effort to get good, restorative sleep can go a long way toward creating a lifetime of health.