Preventing Teen Sleep Deprivation: Is it as Easy as Starting School Later?
August 8, 2016
A National Sleep Foundation poll found that only 20% of high school students are obtaining the optimal 9 hours of sleep on school nights. Lack of sleep is associated with many negative consequences for the health and well-being of teens such as depression, suicide, poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky behaviour and more. Sleep consultants are in agreement that we have an adolescent sleep epidemic on our hands.
Adjusting high school schedules by making the start time later has become one of the most talked about solutions for allowing teens to get more sleep. In fact, the Start School Later organization is currently spearheading an initiative to increase public awareness about the positive impact of delaying school start times on teen sleep as well as to provide resources to US communities that are actively working towards making later school start times. Here are the most common Q/As related to this solution from the perspective of a sleep consultant:
First things first, why are teens not getting enough sleep?
1. They go to bed too late – most people are under the impression that teens go to bed late because they are up to the wee hours of the morning socializing on their smart devices and surfing the computer, but in fact there is a more biological basis to it. During adolescence, circadian rhythms become delayed and melatonin is secreted at a later time at night. The bottom line is that adolescents do not feel tired until a later hour at night than they did when they were kids. They cannot help but to stay up late!
2. They wake up too early - More than half of adolescents wake up between 5AM and 6:30AM on weekdays in order to make it to school on time! Early school start times force teens to wake up at an hour that makes it virtually impossible for them to get the 9 hours of sleep that is recommended.
To recap… late bedtimes due to biology + early wake times due to societal demands = sleep debt!
Second, why can’t teens just erase their weekday sleep debt on the weekend?
Many people think that teens can make up for this lost sleep by playing catch up on the weekend….think again! There are two sleep systems – the homeostatic system and the circadian system. The homeostatic system is like a sleep bank – for this system they can catch up on lost sleep by overcompensating on the weekends. However, the circadian system is all about sleep timing – and this is where adolescents are doomed! By sleeping in on the weekends they are pushing their circadian rhythm in a more delayed direction such that they are not tired until a later and later time.
Picture this: After a long school week of not obtaining sufficient sleep, Tom, a 16 year old high school student, sleeps in until 1PM on Saturday afternoon. He then goes to bed at 1AM because he is not tired until that time due to his late wake up. He then wakes up at 1PM again the following morning because of his late bedtime. What do you think happens on Sunday night when he has to wake up early for school on Monday morning? His circadian rhythm has now shifted so that his body is only ready for sleep at a very late hour – making it impossible to get enough sleep and causing the vicious cycle to continue week after week. Remember, to start with, his circadian rhythm is already delayed compared to other age groups but it is now EVEN MORE delayed than before!
Third, isn’t delaying school start times the obvious solution?
Knowing that teenagers are not biologically ready for bed until a late hour, does it make sense that we are forcing them to wake up at such an early time to make it to school on time? Absolutely not!
At this point, there have been several well-conducted experimental and correlational research studies showing that if we delay school start time by even a modest 30 minutes that adolescents will get that extra sleep each night. Not only will they extend their sleep (rather than just staying up later and later) but the sleep extension is associated with better mood, higher grades, and improved attention at school. Wow – seems pretty simple!
Fourth, does the sleep consultant experience support the research on delaying school start time?
YES! As a sleep consultant, one of our main tasks is to help families overcome barriers to healthy sleep. When working with teens we encounter a strong barrier that is completely out of teens’ control – the time they have to wake up for school. Given that teens are experiencing an abundance of other barriers to healthy sleep such as electronics, homework, social pressures etc., it is unfortunate that their wake up time is not more flexible. The sleep consultant is forced to help them extend their sleep by making bedtime earlier, an extremely difficult task given that for the most part it is controlled by their biology.
Finally, where do we go from here?
Society is in a unique position to completely change the course of the teen sleep deprivation epidemic. We can maintain the status quo and impose early start times, which are associated with academic, social and health-related challenges OR we can make modest delays in school start times that provide adolescents with the opportunity to thrive in those areas by obtaining enough sleep.
What would you choose?
Jamie Cassoff, PhD
Top 3 Ways to Prep your Child for Daylight Savings Time change!
March 10, 2016
Daylight Savings Time (DST) change is just around the corner. On March 13th we will be setting the clocks forward by 1 hour. The time change disrupts the sleep of many children and their families. Jamie Cassoff, founder of Sleep Smartzzz, is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant and has a PhD in Psychology from McGill University where she specialized in child and adolescent sleep. She currently uses her understanding about science behind sleep to help improve the sleep of babies, children and adolescents.
Here are her top 3 recommendations for making the DST change go as smoothly as possible for the entire family:
1. Take baby steps!
Although some children may not experience the effects of the hour time change, for others the hour difference will lead to sleep difficulties and mood changes. One recommendation is to take baby steps and slowly change your child’s nap time(s) and bedtime in the days leading up to the time change. Let’s say your child’s usual bedtime is 7PM. The night before the time change, try to putting him/her to sleep 30 minutes earlier. This way the change will be happening in 30 minute increments instead of 60 minutes all at once (you can also start 4 days before and move nap and bedtimes 15 minutes earlier). The other option is do the cold turkey approach without taking baby steps - this can work equally well for some families. The key is to choose the method that best suits your child, family, personality and lifestyle.
2. Stick to your routine!
In the nights leading up to the time change, try to stick to your child’s bedtime routine as much as possible (Whatever it may be! For example, bath, story time, cuddle, bed). Our brains and bodies crave routine! The more you stick with it, the more it will be easier for your child to go to bed even when the time on the clock is different. This is probably not the week that you want to deviate too much from your child’s schedule by having super late bedtimes, skipping naps or anything else that is different than their usual day to day routine.
3. Do not underestimate the light!
When it begins to get dark in our environment, the hormone Melatonin is secreted in our brain. It tells our brain that it is time for our body to feel sleepy and to go to sleep. When it is light in our environment, Melatonin is supressed and our body no longer feels tired. Daylight savings time throws our system out of whack a little bit and our little ones are expected to go to sleep when it is still light outside but Melatonin is not there to help! Here is a potential solution: dim the lights in your child’s bedroom and turn off all electronics (Tablets, TVs, computers) 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. The light emitted from these devices tells their brains that it is not time for sleep and prevents Melatonin from being secreted. On the other hand, in the morning, get your child in the light as much as possible (30 minutes is ideal). One recommendation is to take your child outside first thing in the morning (e.g. have breakfast outside or walk the dog), or if it’s too cold, open the blinds and let in some natural light. This will help his/her internal clock adjust to the time change by telling the brain that it is time to be alert for the day ahead!
If you are interested in more information about the DST change or about Dr. Cassoff’s sleep consulting services, visit her website www.sleepsmartzzz.com or contact her via phone at 514.589.4390 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15- minute consultation
Jamie Cassoff, PhD
Certified Sleep Consultant
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