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What You Should Know about Teenagers and Sleep

A teenager sleeps during a high school class

Teenagers and sleep: have there ever been two words more diametrically opposed? Last fall, I took my students to One Day University in Boston. One of the featured speakers was Dr. James Maas, a professor at Cornell University who specializes in sleep and performance. I was so inspired by Dr. Maas's lecture that I went out and bought his book, Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask. The information in this book is so valuable for teachers, parents, and students that I regularly share it with them, and many have said it is life-changing.

Teenagers and Sleep (or Lack of It)

The opening chapter of Sleep for Success! contains several quizzes, including the Maas Robbins Alertness Questionnaire, which helps differentiate between well-rested and sleep-deprived individuals. The second test is the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which measures daytime sleepiness. It was no surprise when the results of these tests showed that most of my students and I are severely sleep-deprived.

Dr. Maas's book also includes many scientific studies documenting the dangers of sleep deprivation, especially the physical effects, which include daytime drowsiness, weight gain, colds and flus, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Most importantly, Dr. Maas points out sleep's role in learning, remembering, creating, and problem-solving, all of which are severely compromised by a lack of sleep. When I explained to my students that sleep deprivation ruins athletic performance, I knew I had their attention. Dr. Maas has worked with many professional athletes and his tales of success are legendary.

The Secrets to Better Sleep

Dr. Maas includes an entire chapter titled "Teenage Walking Zombies," which provides useful information for both parents and teens, and throughout the book, he offers great advice on how to get a better night's sleep:

  1. Maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. You can't "make up" sleep on the weekends or "catch up" with naps. The best way to stay rested is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day, including weekends. That's not easy for teens to do, but they will see a difference.
  2. Aim for 9.25 hours of sleep. According to Dr. Maas, this is the optimum amount of sleep teenagers need; adults can usually manage with slightly less. Letting teens know this number, and explaining to them that they'll see benefits, might help motivate them to get that shut-eye.
  3. Limit caffeine. The students at my school are notorious for downing highly caffeinated drinks; my high school really does run on Dunkin Donuts. But too much caffeine affects a person's ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. I encourage my students to cut out caffeine completely, and those that do have seen dramatic results.
  4. Stay off the screens. I know how hard this one is, but exposure to the light of a smartphone or tablet, even for a few minutes, can adversely affect sleep. I suggest charging your phone in a different room so there's no temptation. If you must look at your phone in the middle of the night, most devices have a setting, or an app that you can download, that reduces the amount of blue light the display emits.
  5. See the light. Dr. Maas points out that "sunlight regulates your internal clock," so exposure to bright sunlight as soon as you wake up can help let your brain know, "Hey! It's time to wake up!"
  6. Exercise between 5 and 7 p.m. Exercising between 5 and 7 p.m. is more likely to enhance the depth of nighttime sleep, according to Dr. Maas. Exercise can also help to relieve stress, leading to a better night's sleep.
  7. Set the thermostat for 65 degrees. That is the ideal sleeping temperature, according to Dr. Maas. A room that's too hot or too cold is not conducive for sleep.
  8. Neutralize noise. I know students who sleep with their headphones blaring all night. Big mistake! Turn them off and you'll sleep more soundly.
  9. Use the bed for sleep only. This is also a challenge for teens because their bedrooms are the central area of activity. As a kid, I always did my homework on my bed, and I watched TV and talked on the phone there, too. But when you use your bed for sleep only, when you crawl under the covers, your body and mind will know that it's time for slumber.
  10. Create a pre-sleep routine. Do some stretches. Take a hot bath. Slow down your brain by doing something mindless. These activities will help tell your body it's time to get some sleep.

Gold Medal Results

To hammer the point home about teenagers and sleep, I always retell a story Dr. Maas told our group: two of his students had a daughter (Sarah Hughes) who was obsessed with figure skating. She practiced constantly, getting up early in the morning and heading back out in the afternoon, but she wasn't showing any improvement. Dr. Maas encouraged the young athlete to cut out her early morning practice. She was horrified, but he insisted and put her on a sleep schedule that gave her eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. It wasn't long before the teen's grades improved and she became stronger physically. She then ended up going to the 2002 Winter Olympics. She was considered an underdog, but ended up winning the gold medal. She attributes much of her success to getting more sleep.

Dr. Maas's book Sleep for Success! is an easy read that would be a great gift for any teacher, parent, or teenage student. It can help everyone solve the issues caused by teenagers and sleep.