Employee & Community Health

Teen sleeping in? It's baked in

3/7/2019 by Dr. Meghna Mansukhani

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Have a teen who's tough to roust out of bed in the a.m.? Does that same teen stay up long past their "bedtime"? While it can be aggravating for parents, your teen isn't lazy or focusing on their devices late into the evening. Staying up later and sleeping in longer are baked in to your teen's development. In other words, when they hit the teenage years, their internal clocks reset, too. This change can last into early adulthood. 

It's not an easy transition to make. Kids have school activities and homework that run into the evenings, but then have to catch the bus or be at school hours before their bodies say, "Wake up!" Plus, our work and school worlds revolve around an eight-to-five schedule, making it harder for schools and parents to make adjustments to meet this new sleep reality. 

So what's going on? Our bodies produce a hormone called melatonin, which is responsible for helping us go to sleep. It helps set our internal circadian clock for sleep and wake periods. In teens, melatonin production starts later in the evening. So kids naturally stay up later and wake up later. Genetic factors can also play a role in this delayed sleep phase. 

Research shows that teens need a minimum of nine to 10 hours of sleep a night, but only about one-third of them are meeting that goal. Which builds up a sleep debt that's impossible to "pay back" by sleeping in on weekends. The result of this sleep debt can: 

  • Increase risk for obesity and cardiovascular issues
  • Influence mental health, including anxiety and mood problems
  • Affect academic performance and behavior

For some children, it may worsen into a disorder, which can persist into late life if not treated. If your teen is having problems functioning during the day or using medications, alcohol or other drugs to help fall asleep or stay awake, schedule an appointment with their primary care provider. Treatment can include taking melatonin at night to go to sleep, using a light box in the morning to stimulate waking up and following a fixed sleep schedule every day of the week. 

Several school districts nationwide, at the urging of parents and health care professionals, have adopted new school start times at 8:30 or later for teens that reflect their changing sleep-wake phases. Accumulating research indicates this is working. Later school times allow teens to sleep in during the week, creating less of a difference between their weekday and weekend schedules, reducing sleepiness during the day and even decreasing the number of motor vehicle accidents involving teens.

You can help your teen get the sleep they need and adjust to their new inner clock by encouraging them to: 

  • Prioritize sleep
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Turn off electronics before they start their bedtime routine
  • Develop a nice, wind-down routine for the day
  • Be physically active, but not too close to bedtime
  • Avoid exposure to bright light in the late evening
  • Expose themselves to bright light first thing in the morning

Creating good sleep habits will help them now and for the rest of their lives. 

Dr. Meghna Mansukhani is a consultant at Mayo Clinic's Center for Sleep Medicine and associate professor in the Mayo College of Medicine. She also is the lead for Integrated Community Specialties in Sleep Medicine for Employee and Community Health (ECH) at Mayo Clinic.