Teenager's sleep and reaching their full potential

It was a privilege to be able to talk to a room-full of secondary-school students over dinner last night. The topic was sleep. Over 25 minutes my goal was to help these terrific young people realise that sleeping enough and sleeping well will enable them to happily reach their academic and sporting potential. I also wanted them to understand what they can do to ensure that they sleep as well as possible.

A number of students approached me after the talk to discuss their own sleep difficulty. This happens whenever I talk about sleep in a community forum to teenagers or adults. As last night’s audience were boarders at a local school, their parents were not in attendance. I was left wondering, what would I want the parents of these young people to understand about the sleep needs of their children?

Here’s my top three:

1. The kids know stuff! But they need help. Your children probably understand more than you do about ‘sleep hygiene’, body clock issues and how to filter blue and green light from computer screens. They know that use of internet-connected hand-held devices in bedrooms is disruptive to their sleep. They know that if they get enough good quality sleep then they will be less anxious, happier, faster, more accurate, less prone to injury and perform better academically – particularly at maths. They know that sleep, along with nutrition and exercise, is a pillar of health. They know what sort of behaviours and environment will help them to sleep well. But as dependent teenagers they have limited ability to control these factors. They need (and want) help from the adults in their lives to do this. Staff at the boarding school I spoke at last night understands that they have a very important role to play in this regard. As their parents, so do you.

2. Normal sleep can be difficult for teenagers. Many of your children will endure a period of ‘delayed sleep phase’. Feel free to Google the term! This means that for a while – maybe even years – your child will find it difficult to get to sleep at a decent hour. If they go to bed early they will be unable to sleep, and they will be difficult to raise in the morning. They may be struggling to get enough hours sleep on school days. (They almost all need at least 7 hours, and many will need up to 9 hours sleep). As a consequence they will build up a ‘sleep debt’ and be exhausted on weekends. If that describes your child then try letting them sleep a little bit longer on the weekend, or perhaps have a nap in the afternoon. This is usually a phase that passes. However, if your child is getting to sleep very late and sleeping in equally late in the morning then schooling can be very difficult. If this is your situation then it would be worth seeking assistance from a sleep medicine specialist.

3. What may be “normal” among adults is not normal for teenagers. Your teenage child should not be snoring, should not be waking up tired in the morning and should not be falling asleep in the daytime. Healthy teenagers may be moody and inattentive if they are sleeping poorly, but they seldom fall asleep in class. So if your child is snoring regularly, waking up tired after a good night’s sleep, or frequently having difficulty staying awake in the daytime then chances are high that they have a sleep problem which will limit their potential unless it is addressed. Please help them find help!

Dr Andrew Bradbeer, FRACP

Sleep & Respiratory Physician

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