CAN you help my teenager with his sleep?
This is a question we frequently encounter at the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center and Seattle Children’s Sleep Disorders Clinic. We are often met with a look of mixed relief when parents find out this shift in nighttime wakefulness is a normal part of adolescent physiology.
Still, many students need to be at school by 7:30 a.m. What are parents and teenagers supposed to do?
We suggest that schools begin the day later for teenagers. Seattle Public Schools plans to survey parents this fall about school start times for the 2014-15 school year.
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Currently, our high schools start as early as 7:50 a.m., with buses arriving at 7:35 a.m. and requiring much earlier wake-up times. The organization Start School Later Seattle advocates starting classes at a more biologically ideal time of 9 or 9:30 a.m.
Nationally, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently tweeted,
“Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.”
He later explained that research has shown teens have more difficulty paying attention in the early morning and learn better when schools start later. He encouraged school districts to be innovative in considering later start times.
If our local parents agree, that type of positive change could be coming to Seattle.
Do the benefits outweigh the costs of changing school schedules? What is the science that would justify such an undertaking? Is there a real educational or health advantage to starting school later? Are teens just being lazy and irresponsible by not going to bed earlier as many Internet message boards would suggest? Or, is there really a biologic basis for the late-night predilection of teens?
Let’s start with the myth of the lazy teen. The body’s natural 24-hour alerting cycle, the circadian rhythm, actually shifts about one hour later with the onset of puberty. Thus, the typical high-school student’s natural time to fall asleep is 11 p.m. or later.
This shift in the biological clock is seen across cultures, suggesting a strong biologic basis. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adolescents need 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep per night.
Requiring teens to wake up at an early hour means that they must try to fall asleep before their bodies are ready, if they hope to attain a healthy amount of sleep. This may explain why only 24 percent of U.S. 12th graders reported getting at least eight hours of sleep in a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. It may also explain why teens do not learn as well during the early morning hours. Their brains are programmed to still be asleep at that time.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair memory, alertness and attention. It inhibits the ability to solve problems, retain information and cope with stress. It is also correlated with depression, substance abuse, sexual activity, aggression and other behavioral problems.
Teens in school districts that have delayed school start times have benefited from less sleepiness, better moods, improved school attendance, fewer motor-vehicle accidents and improved academic achievement.
Shouldn’t we strive for these benefits for Seattle students? Scheduling later school start times for teens than younger students could be part of a solution.
Certainly there are challenges in implementing change. But as many Seattle parents recognize, when we ignore biology we deprive our children of their fullest opportunity for health and learning. Let’s stand up for their potential by supporting later school start times for teens.
Joanna E. Wrede, left, is a doctor and Pediatric Sleep Medicine fellow at the University of Washington. Vishesh K. Kapur is a UW professor of medicine, doctor and founder of the UW Medicine Sleep Center.