How much sleep do teenagers need?

Julius Patrick
Lead Sleep Physiologist at the Cromwell Hospital
11 March 2020
Next review due March 2023

Teenagers often get a bad reputation for sleeping in late or staying in bed all day. But what if all those weekend lie-ins and hours spent under the duvet are more important for your teenager’s health than you realise? Some secondary schools have considered starting later so that teenagers can get extra rest on school nights. And some trials found that allowing students extra time in bed has a positive influence on their attendance and grades. Here I’ll take a look at why getting enough sleep is crucial during adolescence, and share the biological reason behind why this age group often stay up so late.

Why is sleep so important for teenagers?

Sleep is an essential and involuntary part of life — it’s just as important for staying alive as eating and breathing. As adults, we spend roughly a third of our day sleeping, while newborns and children will snooze even longer. Getting plenty of good-quality sleep helps to look after both your physical and mental health. For teenagers, it can also help them to:

  • perform well at school
  • cope with stress
  • solve problems
  • pay attention and concentrate
  • learn and remember
  • have healthy skin
  • manage their moods
  • eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight
  • grow and develop
  • get along with family and friends
  • look after their mental health
  • drive more safely (if they’re of age)

How much sleep is enough for teenagers?

It’s recommended that teenagers get around eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. But most teenagers aren’t getting enough of their much-needed shut eye.

There are lots of things that might be keeping teenagers up at night. These might include:

  • feeling stressed and under pressure with school and exams
  • worries about friendships, relationships and family life
  • watching TV, gaming, texting or scrolling on social media
  • taking part in extracurricular activities
  • after-school jobs
  • drug or alcohol misuse

Sleep patterns in teenagers

Although social media, technology and societal pressures are partly to blame for keeping teenagers up at night, their biological makeup is also responsible too. This is because the body’s natural sleep pattern, hormones and circadian rhythm change during adolescence. The circadian rhythm is your body’s own internal clock. It’s a complex system, which regulates your sleep/wake cycle within a 24 hour period.

During puberty, the circadian cycle of teenagers shifts. This means that teenagers will naturally fall asleep later, then sleep for longer and wake up later than adults. Many teenagers also tend to stay up even later and lie in late on the weekends, which can disrupt their biological clock and sleep patterns even more. But, sleep patterns should begin to return to normal as teenagers approach adulthood.

Research has also found that teenagers don’t produce melatonin until later at night. Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body in response to darkness, that makes you feel tired and tells your body it’s time to sleep. So even if you send your teenager to bed earlier, they may not be able to fall asleep. Asking your teenager to fall asleep at 10pm is like asking a parent to go to bed by 7-8pm.

What’s more, the light from electronic devices used at night can confuse your body and disrupt the production of melatonin, making it even harder to fall asleep. Other research has found that teenagers can tolerate being awake for longer periods, and are also less sensitive to light in the mornings, making it difficult to wake up.

It’s because of these changes to their internal body clock, that teenagers often feel more awake in the evenings, tired in the mornings and may struggle to get out of bed in time for school. So although you may want your teenager to get up at a reasonable hour, getting them out of bed before they’ve had enough sleep can lead to grogginess, known as sleep inertia. Over time, this repetitive sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on their wellbeing.

Should school start later for teenagers?

It has been said that school start times are out of sync with the internal clocks of teenagers. And there has been some debate in recent years on whether secondary schools should start later in the day to address teenage tiredness, and improve their performance in school.

One study in the U.S trialled a number of schools opening later so that teenagers could wake up at a time that’s closer to their body’s natural sleep cycle. They found that students still went to bed at the same time, but slept in later the following morning, resulting in them getting more sleep over the course of the school week. They also reported that students were more likely to be on time for school, and saw an improvement in their overall attendance and grades.

But, there are lots of things to take into account when considering if schools should open their doors later for teenagers. For example, how would this fit around parents’ work schedules? How would school bus timetables need to be changed to accommodate primary and secondary school students arriving at different times? Would students end up walking home late in the dark? And would they have time for extracurricular activities in the evenings? In the UK, the decision on when teenagers start school ultimately lies with each school individually.

Tips for teens to get a good night’s sleep

So how can you help your teenager get a good night’s rest? Try these tips to help them drift off.

Establish a sleep routine. Encourage your teenager to go bed and wake up at the same time every day – even on weekends.

Make the bedroom a sleep-friendly zone. Ensure their bedroom is used for sleeping only and make it quiet, cosy, dark and cool.

Create a sleep ritual. Get your teenager into the habit of doing something relaxing every evening before bed, to prepare their body for sleep. For example, they could try having a bath, reading a book or meditating.

Give caffeine a cut-off point. The caffeine found in tea, coffee, chocolate and fizzy drinks can stimulate your nervous system, suppress the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone) and keep you awake. It can take hours for the body to process caffeine, so it’s best to avoid consuming caffeine in the hours before bed.

Limit screen time before bed. The blue light you get from electrical devices can disrupt the hormones that signal your body to go to sleep and make it more difficult to drift off. So leave TVs, phones, tablets and computers out of the bedroom, and ask your teenager to stop using them at least an hour before they intend to go to sleep.

Keep organised. Don’t leave homework and studying until late at night. It may also help to encourage your teenager to make a to-do list to help them stay on top of things, calm their worries and quiet a busy mind before bed.

Eat well. Try not to let teenagers go to bed hungry as a rumbling tummy can keep them awake. On the other hand, eating too much before bed can make you feel uncomfortable. It also means your body has to work hard to digest the food. Too much sugar or artificial additives before bed could also leave them feeling hyperactive. So teach them the many benefits of eating a nutritious and balanced diet.

Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help to relieve stress, improve your mood and help you sleep better. Encourage your teenager to move each day, but try not to do high-intensity exercise immediately before bed, as this could leave them feeling too energised and unable to sleep. Instead, opt for a gentle stroll in the fresh air or some relaxing yoga before bedtime.

If you’ve tried the steps above, but your teenager still isn’t sleeping well and it’s having a negative impact on how they feel, it may be due to a more serious underlying sleep disorder. If you’re worried, speak to your GP for advice.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Julius Patrick
Julius Patrick
Lead Sleep Physiologist at the Cromwell Hospital

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