Sleep Struggles and Teenagers
In our January/February issue, we discussed whether or not the Vancouver School Board should hit the snooze button on school start times. While our kids may not be in schools today, the topic of sleep and its impact on learning still remains an important one to explore. Are your kids getting enough sleep right now? Read our guest post by Alison Tedford below for more.
“My boy is 15. It is brutal getting him out of the house in the morning. He is perennially tired,” shares local mom, Inga Kruse Gow. Another mom, Beverly Docherty, agrees, sharing how her daughter’s constant fatigue interrupted her education. “Whatever two classes were first blocks were write offs. She almost never made it to class,” she explains. Beverly goes on to describe how her daughter took 8 years to finish her high school education due to persistent sleep challenges bumping up against her school schedule.
It’s no wonder after hearing stories like these, that the Vancouver School Board is considering hitting snooze on school start times for teens. This change is being proposed in recognition of the unique sleep needs of teens.
Why Sleep is so Important for Teens
Dr. Anita Natarajan of local telehealth provider Babylon by TELUS Health explains why teen sleep is so important: “The teenage years are a special time. There’s a tremendous increase in growth of the body, as well as the brain. In terms of the mental aspects of things, there is a lot of growth and change during this time. There are extra sleep requirements. There is a little bit of a shift in the sleep pattern in that they prefer to go to bed later in the evening and they tend to want to sleep in later in the day.”
Pediatric sleep expert Dr. Wendy Hall of UBC, who was part of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine group that made recommendations about ideal sleep durations for children and adolescents based on 845 academic papers, speaks to how school scheduling impacts sleep. She suggests that an ideal school start time for teens is 9:30am. Failing that, a start time between 8:45am and 9:00am would be preferable.
In terms of the clinical evidence for delaying start times, while some studies showed that teens were getting less than the acceptable range of sleep, Dr. Hall noted that a Brock University study that looked at students from 49 secondary schools across Ontario showed a third of the participants did not get the recommended sleep duration of 8 to 10 hours per night. These same students got 24 extra minutes of sleep per night when school start times were delayed by just ten minutes.
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The Cause of Reduced Bedtime and its Consequences
Both doctor Natarajan and doctor Hall indicated that school start times are only part of the picture as far as teen sleep goes. They agreed that exposure to light from devices can be problematic for teens. Over-scheduling can also be particularly problematic, and mental health issues in teens should not be overlooked when fatigue is reported. While school start times can impact sleep, it is not the only factor.
Dr. Hall explained that the consequences of poor sleep can be dire. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine research has shown that If high school students don’t get enough sleep, “they run increased risk of being overweight, drinking alcohol, engaging in risky behaviours, some of them are more likely to get into a car with someone who’s been drinking… [they are] more likely to smoke tobacco, have poor academic performance and in some countries…particularly in Asian countries, may experience increased thoughts of suicide and increased suicidality.”
How to Fix Sleep Issues in Teens
Those are some significant risks. But how do parents whose teens go to schools that have early start times encourage healthy sleep? While studies seem to suggest that later school start times can be beneficial, not every district has options to accommodate later starts. The doctors weighed in with their advice.
Dr. Wendy Hall emphasizes the importance of role modelling screen time reduction after 9:00pm and suggests using a communal docking station to ensure that no phones are in bedrooms at night. She also encourages parents not to give up on enforcing and insisting on a regular bedtime, keeping the lights dim in the evening and avoiding late-night TV. She suggests scheduling physical activities earlier in the evening to mitigate the way it raises the core temperature, interfering with good night’s rest.
Benefits of a Good Night’s Rest
Dr. Natarajan shares her suggestions too, explaining, “sleep is at the core of good health.” She agrees that electronics after nine should be curtailed due to the issues of light activation, that parents should allow for extra rest on the weekends by not scheduling activities too early in the morning, and to leave room for strategic napping. She also recommends that parents look into medical causes for fatigue like iron deficiency or an under-active thyroid. Having empathy for the demands of extracurricular activities after a full day of school is something else Dr. Natarajan suggests parents cultivate.
Education is so important, but so is sleep. With the impacts of poor rest as serious as they are, it could be advisable to hit snooze on school start times, so students can be better prepared to participate in their education. Better sleep is just what the doctor orders, and parents, teens and school districts can work together to improve health outcomes for not just this generation but also those to come. The time to wake up to the benefits of later school start times has arrived.
For more great activities, tips and resources, check out our latest issue! You can read the full March/April issue of WestCoast Families magazine online here.