How much sleep do teens need?

Summer vacation with its leisurely pace and long, lazy days is only a sunny memory, too soon replaced by the demands of a busy school year. Free time is fading along with our tans, and the concept of a good night’s rest seems like hazy dream. As homework demands, social obligations and extracurricular activities fill every waking minute, parents worry that their teens may not be catching quite enough z’s to support their challenging schedules and fuel their growth.

Parenting magazines, blogs and websites only add to the concern. Sleep, or our apparent lack of it, is a constant topic in popular media. Evidently, we are a society of sleep-deprived zombies, barely functioning and often posing a danger to ourselves and others. Any parent can attest that the difference between an average, grumpy teen early on a weekday morning and the walking dead is often negligible. Add one more item to the top of the parental worry list. Are our teenagers getting enough sleep?

According to Tulsa pediatrician Don Zetik, the answer is probably “yes,” although it may not be at the time or in the manner that most parents would prefer. “It’s a very popular media topic,” Dr. Zetik acknowledged. “But to be fair, it’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about with my patients in the greater scheme of the problems that kids have. I find that many times, with teenagers more so than anyone else, it’s that they have dysfunctional sleeping patterns, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the total quantity of sleep they’re getting.”

In other words, over the course of time, all those late weekend snooze-ins and cat naps are likely adding up to the proverbial 40 winks. According to Dr. Zetik, “I think most of them get adequate sleep, but I think they probably don’t get it in the most efficient way they could.” Their typical sleep cycle runs later and longer than those of an adult so that “their body at nine or ten o’clock is feeling the same way your or my body is feeling at six or seven.”

That explains the late night TV binges, texting and general goofing off as teens fight off the sandman. Unfortunately, they still have to answer to the morning alarm. As a result, by Thursday or Friday, they may be racking up a sleep deficit, which may cause them to literally sleep the weekend away as they catch up on their sleep needs.

While Dr. Zetik doesn’t think these irregular sleep patterns pose a health risk for teenagers or that kids are severely sleep deprived in general, he does acknowledge that “we probably just all need a little better sleep hygiene and we need to keep to a more routine schedule.” If by the end of the week “you have to crash all day Saturday to make up for it, it’s probably not the most efficient use of our time.” As Dr. Zetik noted, “I think for most of us, it’s not a matter of sleeping enough, it’s just that we don’t make smart choices, and certainly our adolescents don’t make smart choices, if left to their own devices, about how they distribute that sleep. If you didn’t run yourself ragged Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, maybe you would do better on that test on Thursday.”

It’s up to parents to help their teens develop better sleep habits. “The best advice, and this is hard for people to take because it’s not very sexy and it’s not very interesting, is setting a realistic time to settle down, tune out the TV and electronics and even the homework, and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour each night. Secondarily, respect a reasonable wake-up time, even on the weekends, not that it has to be like boot camp, but not straying from your routine schedule by more than an hour or two at most,” Dr. Zetik suggested.

The good news for parents is that most teens are getting adequate rest, so strike sleep deprivation off or your endless worry list.

However, the challenge of getting your teen to stick to a reasonable sleep routine remains, and I wish you luck with that one.

“I certainly do not perceive that there is a sleep deficiency epidemic on our hands,” Dr. Zetik said reassuringly. “When I think about all the topics that concern me and all the topics that I think parents need to know about or worry about in terms of health and development, sleep is really not on my radar that much…if your child is able to stay awake and function well during routine, normal educational, social and extra curricular times, then they’re probably doing okay.”

Dr. Zetik added these words of wisdom, “There are only so many things you can worry about as a parent. I feel like one of my jobs as a pediatrician is to hopefully give parents a little bit of focus an selectivity in deciding which of the millions of things they should worry about on any given day.”

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: Tweens & Teens