Posted by Marlie Standen 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.
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).
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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