In my last post, we discussed why sleep is so important for teenagers. Today, we’re going to talk about how: How do you help your teen get better sleep?
First of all, there’s a major hurdle that you need to be aware of: teenagers’ brains are naturally wired to stay up later and sleep in later. Most teens can’t easily fall asleep before 11:00 p.m. or wake up before 8:00 a.m. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just your teen being defiant – it’s actually biological.
Unfortunately, most schools don’t account for this. High school often starts as early as 7:00 am, and it may be even earlier if they have activities or clubs before school. In my opinion, this isn’t fair to your teenager. Some school districts have changed their schedules so that the elementary schools start earlier and the high schools start later, around 8:45. I think this is a great idea and I wouldn’t be surprised if more schools start to follow suit.
At least for now though, it’s likely that your teen is going to have to do their best to adapt to this schedule. This is possible, but it takes some effort. Try to educate your teen about the importance of sleep and work with them to improve their sleep habits. Here are some of important ways to help your teen improve their sleep.
Take the TV and phone out of the bedroom. One of the most important things you can do is make sure they aren’t using any “screens” one to two hours before sleep. Screens use artificial light, which trick the brain into thinking it’s daylight and cause it to produce chemicals that help you stay awake, rather than the chemicals that help you fall asleep.
Also, the content of video games, TV, and texts can be stimulating, which is not helpful when your teen is getting ready to fall asleep. So turn off the phone, Ipad, and TV. If your teen says they need the noise to fall asleep, turn on a fan for white noise or play the radio softly.
Instead of playing on their phone or watching TV, help your teen come up with relaxing activities that can help them wind down before bed. Reading is a great one if this is something they enjoy. Writing in a journal is another good one. They may want to take a warm shower or bubble bath before going to bed. Any activity that is calm and relaxing will work.
Make sure the bedroom is completely dark. Any light at night can cause the brain to produce chemicals that signal the brain to stay awake. If your teen has a light outside their window, buy heavy or black-out curtains that block it completely.
Limit caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Make sure they aren’t drinking coffee, caffeinated soda, or energy drinks while they’re studying or doing homework in the afternoon. The effects of caffeine can last around 8 hours, so again count backwards from bedtime to figure out when they should stop.
Encourage time outside. Spending time outside during the day helps
your teen to feel more awake during the day and naturally feel sleepier at night. If possible, they should spend some time in the sunlight as soon as they can after waking up, because this will give them the most benefit in regulating the sleep cycle. Any time spent outside will be helpful though, no matter what time of day it is.
Exercise is important! Teens will sleep better if they are physically tired. Some exercise during the day will help them sleep better. If they play a sport or are naturally active, great! But if they are the type to spend most of their time on the couch, getting moving more will help them sleep better. Encourage them to take a walk or a bike ride. Bonus points if they can combine exercise with being outside. Just be careful – exercise can have a negative effect on sleep if it is too close to bedtime, so try to schedule it for earlier in the evening.
Figure out when the ideal bedtime is, and prioritize this. Teens ideally should be getting around 9 hours of sleep. This will vary a little depending on the individual, but use it as a starting place. Work backward from what time they need to wake up to figure out what times they should put the screens away, start the wind-down activities, and aim to fall asleep.
I know this may be difficult. High school students have a lot of homework, after-school activities, and work commitments. Just remember how important sleep is for these activities. Compromising sleep is only going to hurt your child’s performance in the long run. If they truly can’t fit everything in unless they stay up later than they should, consider cutting back on some of the commitments.
Try melatonin if needed. If your teen struggles significantly with falling asleep, it may be worth trying a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is the chemical that helps you feel sleepy and fall asleep faster. You don’t need a prescription for this and it’s worth a try if the other strategies aren’t helping enough. It’s not a miracle cure, though. Many of my clients have had success with melatonin, but there have been some who felt groggy the next day, and it doesn’t always work for those with significant insomnia.
If you implement these strategies, your teen should be getting more, better sleep in no time.