Let’s Talk About Sleep: Helping You Catch the Zzz’s You Need

Posted by on November 01, 2023

This post is an offering to all the teens out there who have a complicated relationship with sleep. It’s for the repeat snooze-button users and the after-school nappers. It’s for the students frantically rushing out the door 15 minutes late because that extra 15 minutes in bed feels so needed. It’s for those whose minds decide 2am is a perfectly reasonable time to solve all their greatest problems – I see you. Mostly, this article is for those who struggle with their sleep, those who dread bedtime and that first morning alarm, and those who feel “tired” is their daily baseline. 

You are not alone (even at 3am when it feels like no one else is with you).

How much sleep do teens really need?

Teens require more sleep than adults because of their growing bodies and minds. On average, teens need between 8-10 hours of sleep per night, but every teen is different – some may need less while others may need more

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep allows the body and mind to recharge, repair, and grow. The body cycles through different stages of sleep throughout the night: light sleep (preparation for sleep by slowing down bodily functions), deep sleep (essential for recovery and growth to occur, removal of toxins, immune system recovery, etc.) and REM sleep (critical for brain functions like memory, creativity and learning)1. Deep and REM sleep are restorative – I like to think of these stages as an overnight clean-up crew – they come in to do their job and they need enough time to do that job well. 

What about when we don’t get good sleep? 

It’s normal to occasionally have “bad nights.” However, when sleep quality is often poor and it rarely feels refreshing and restorative, it’s important to address. Not getting enough quality restorative sleep can contribute to low mood, difficulty coping with stress, cognitive problems (concentration, focus, learning), and overall, not feeling well. Good quality sleep is particularly essential during the critical development period of adolescence. 

Three systems that affect sleep

The body clock (circadian rhythm) influences the timing of our sleep by sending “alerting” signals early in the day and then stops sending these signals later in the day, leading us to feel sleepy. Interestingly, biological changes during adolescence affect the body clock such that teens develop a “night owl” tendency towards later bedtimes and waking times.

The sleep drive system is the build-up of our body’s need for sleep. Think of it like a balloon. It’s empty in the morning and then as you go about your day – being active, using the brain, being social – the balloon fills up. Eventually, the balloon is so full that it must burst – and that burst is when the body’s need for sleep wins and we fall asleep.

The arousal system includes the body’s stress response system. If your body is too aroused – excited, stressed, or anxious – it will override the need for sleep. 


The culprits of poor sleep…

There are many factors that contribute to poor sleep and it’s important to identify which may be affecting you:

Teens’ night owl sleep tendencies often interfere with their school schedules. If teens are unable to fall asleep at a reasonable time (according to when they have to wake), the window of opportunity for sleep is shrunk. 

  • Teens are really busy and may not allocate enough time for sleep when trying to squeeze everything in. 
  • Screen time before bed can be stimulating, distracting and the light exposure reduces production of melatonin, an important sleep hormone. 
  • Mental health challenges and stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Prolonged sleep issues can hinder one’s ability to cope with stress and emotional challenges. 
  • Napping – the ultimate saboteur of sleep – interrupts the build-up of sleep drive. It’s like popping a hole in that taught balloon… napping literally bursts your sleep bubble. 
  • Engaging in wakeful activities in bed, such as homework, gaming, or scrolling, causes “conditioned arousal” whereby the brain associates time in bed with being awake.
  • Inconsistent waking times (7am Mon-Fri, noon on Sat/Sun…) is like hopping all over time zones and sending the body clock through a time warp. 
  • Caffeine in the late afternoon/evening spikes the arousal system and may override sleep the body clock and sleep drive system.  
  • Substances like alcohol or cannabis interrupt the sleep cycles and significantly reduce deep and REM restorative sleep. 


A recipe for better sleep

It’s not reasonable to expect anyone to address all their sleep culprits at once, but consider which ones feel possible for you to start with the following tips:

Wake up around the same time every day. This strengthens the body clock and can shift the clock earlier (if night owls consistently wake at an earlier time). 

  • Remind yourself that sleep is a necessity and protecting the 8–10-hour window for sleep is an act of self-care. If it helps, set an alarm or block your calendar for when your protected evening time begins. 
  • Limit screen time before bed (30min-1hr at least). 
  • Create a “buffer zone” before bed, during which you engage in calming and relaxing (screen-free) activities (i.e., a bath, reading, stretching, listening to slow music, self-care). This helps the arousal system calm down enough that sleep is possible and overall is supportive for wellbeing. 
  • Only go to bed when you feel sleepy. If you are in bed and you can’t sleep (after 30+ minutes), get out of the bed and engage in a  calming, relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. This breaks the conditioned arousal that the bed is the space for being awake.  
  • Skip the nap, especially late in the day. Remind yourself that while napping may feel good now, it will make for a more challenging night. If there is an urge to nap, consider getting outside for a walk, moving the body, or engaging in a stimulating activity. If you must nap, try to keep it under 30 minutes. 
  • Try to reduce caffeine intake in the afternoon (each body is different, but around 2pm is a good cut-off time) and substitute with an herbal tea or alternative beverage. 
  • Try to reduce alcohol or cannabis use and track how substances affect your sleep. 
  • Consult your healthcare provider before using sleep supplements/herbal remedies*

If sleep is a real challenge for you, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional. It may be important to rule out any other sleep conditions or receive more specific support for sleep disorders like insomnia (i.e., CBT for Insomnia). 


References and Resources: 

Sleep Foundation || https://www.sleepfoundation.org/ 

SleepWell.ca || https://mysleepwell.ca/ 

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