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Helping Teenagers Get Better Sleep: A Struggle For Every Parent


With school back in session, students are having to readjust from their summer sleeping habits. 

Helping teenagers get better sleep is a familiar subject for Dr. Barbara Durso.

The Parkland Hospital pediatrician is also a mother of two young adult daughters. She says she and her husband "had a constant battle" of trying to get them as teenagers to go to bed at a reasonable hour in order to wake up in the morning for school.

Durso thinks it's a "struggle every parent can relate to."

Interview Highlights

Why teens often stay up late: There are changes in the brain that happen around puberty, and it actually shifts your sleep cycle to later so that you literally don’t feel sleepy until much, much later compared to when you were a younger child. For a lot of teens, they don’t feel sleepy until 11, midnight, 1 a.m. — compared to say a younger school-age child who might feel sleepy around 8 or 9 p.m.

How much sleep teens need each night: There’s different guidelines put out by different professional agencies. The most recent one was eight to 10 hours, and I actually saw one summary that said nine and a quarter hours — like it was a precise amount that a teenager needed.

Durso's tips to help teens get better sleep

  1. Help them understand that it can affect their health. For teens, the way to get them to think about health is to think about appearance. Lack of sleep leads to an increased development of acne —so, parents could try the vanity approach.
  2. Lay down guidelines about access to electronic devices. The idea is to decrease your brain’s exposure to those particular light levels, so that the brain will start making the melatonin hormone, which is needed for drowsiness. Get off the electronic devices at least an hour before you need go to sleep. There are apps to put an orange cast on your phone's screen to decrease that blue light
  3. Do something relaxing before bed: reading, meditation — something that is not stimulating to your mind.
  4. Keep the same sleep schedule every day. Teens don’t get enough sleep Monday through Friday because they’re going to bed at 11 or midnight, maybe not actually falling asleep until 1 a.m., and they’ve still got to get up at 7 a.m. So, they’ve only gotten six hours that night instead of the eight to 10 that they need. Every night that shortfall adds up. By Friday night, you’ve got five times that many hours that you’re lacking in sleep, and then you end up with a teenager that sleeps until 2 and 3 in the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. So it’s very important to keep the same sleep schedule and that parents be aware they need to average eight to 10 hours.

Why too little sleep is bad: "Not having enough sleep is associated with a lot of health effects: Mood disorders, like depression or anxiety or worse with lack of sleep. Lack of sleep can be a trigger for migraine headaches. Lack of sleep can affect driving. Teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have car accidents. A sleep-deprived driver is like a drunk driver."

For more information:

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.