How to Help Sleepy Students


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The sleep needs of our teenage children is an important issue.  Much credit should be given to the SLEEP organization for bringing this important health issue up for public discussion.

The SLEEP web site and the school board's Transportation Task Force sites have links to research on the benefits of better sleep for teens, and the special sleep needs of teens.  Please refer to these sites for more detailed information on those topics.

The following iscompiled from research done concurrent with the TTF Minority Report   - Patricia Velkoff, Chair

Two-thirds of teens have a shift in their biological clock leading them to get tired later at night than when they were younger. One-third of teens do not go through this shift. Arguing for a later high school start time tells students that the responsibility for getting more sleep belongs to the school system. Another way to think about this is that challenges happen, and that teens need to learn to take responsibility for addressing their challenges. Rather than look to institutions to fix their problems, each teen and their parents can do the things that are in their power to control.

Here are a variety of strategies to help teens (and parents, too!) get the sleep they need.

First, accept responsibility:

  • Parents can accept responsibility that their teens require parental monitoring and restrictions about their sleep habits. They know to keep their teens from engaging in such unhealthy activities as drug use and reckless driving. Parents also have a responsibility to keep their teens from unhealthy sleep patterns.
  • Teens can accept responsibility for their own sleep needs. This includes understanding their own patterns and deciding that they need to invest themselves in their health.

Second, keep a sleep diary:

  • A two-week sleep diary can provide plenty of information about a teen’s amount of sleep, bed times and waking times, naps, and other activities that can influence sleep quality and quantity.
  • This sleep diary can help identify which of the recommendations below would be most helpful to a particular teen in improving his or her sleep patterns.

Third, tackle evening challenges:

  • The National Sleep Foundation recommends that parents enforce a regular sleep schedule for their teens. They also recommend that this schedule include a before-bed period when teens must turn off loud music and avoid bright lights, including televisions and computer screens.
  • Set a specific target bedtime.
  • Over a period of two weeks, gradually move to this new, earlier bedtime.
  • Eliminate use of computers and television during the two hours before bedtime. Bright computer monitors and televisions suppress the production of melatonin, the brain chemical that signals that it is time for sleep. If necessary, this can also be phased in over two weeks.
  • Heavy meals should be avoided during the two hours before bedtime. Teens should also not go to bed hungry, as this can keep them awake. Bedtime snacks that are relatively high in dairy products and carbohydrates are most likely to promote sleep.
  • Most teens and adults sleep best in dark, quiet rooms that are slightly cool.
  • Consider using a pillow between the knees or under the waist to improve comfort.
  • For nighttime bathroom breaks, use only a dim night light.
  • Earplugs, "white noise" machines, or mellow music can help some individuals with falling asleep.

Fourth, tackle morning challenges:

  • Set a specific target waking time, or "first alarm" time.
  • Set a specific target "out of bed" time and make it happen.
  • Use bright light in the morning, because these signal to the brain that it is daytime, time to shut down the production of melatonin.
  • On weekend mornings, do not allow teens to sleep more than 2 or 3 hours past the time they wake up on weekdays.

Fifth, set other requirements:

  • Helene Emsellem, M.D. has recommended that parents remove computers from the bedrooms of their teens and that there be a strict turn off time for television and computers.
  • Dr. Emsellem also recommends removing clutter from teens’ rooms, as well as painting the walls in calm colors such as pleasant blues and greens, tan, light yellow, or peach.
  • Daytime naps make it more difficult to fall asleep at night and help to perpetuate the problem. If teens are in need of a nap, they should take no more than a 15 minute nap when they get home from school.
  • On weekends, teens should go to sleep no more than one hour later than on weeknights. They should not wake up more than 2 to 3 hours later than during the week.
  • Consider adjusting extracurricular, employment, and leisure activities to promote regular sleep patterns and adequate hours for sleep.
  • Avoid all-nighters.
  • Alcohol makes it difficult to enter the deep stages of sleep that are restorative. Alcohol can also cause restlessness and nighttime waking. This adds one more reason to require teens to avoid alcohol.
  • Caffeine and other stimulants can stay in a person’s system for up to 14 hours. After noon, then, teens should avoid all products with caffeine, including coffee, non-herbal tea, colas, chocolate, some pain relievers, and diet drugs.
  • Nicotine, in the form or cigarettes or nicotine patches, acts as a stimulant in the body. Nicotine at night can make it difficult to fall asleep. Cigarette addiction can make it difficult to fall asleep because nicotine withdrawal wakes a person up to get more nicotine.
  • Regular exercise, five to six hours before bedtime, can help with sleep. Teens should not exercise during the several hours before bedtime, though, since this perks up the body.
  • After vacations, begin adjusting to the school sleep schedule at least three days before school begins.

Sixth, make a commitment:

  • Whether changes in teen sleep patterns are followed because teens want to change or because parents are requiring them to change, new goals need to be specific. "Get more sleep" is not specific. Two specific goals might be: "Turn off the television and computer by 9:20 each night starting next Sunday" and "Do not sleep after school this week, which includes do not work in the living room or bedroom after school and do not lie down or lounge in a chair."
  • Write down the new sleep goals in a chart so that you can keep a record of successes and failures.
  • Choose someone to monitor your chart and your progress. Ask that person to encourage you toward success. Check in with that person every day about how you are progressing. Be sure they are monitoring your chart as well.
  • If tackling the entire sleep pattern is too demanding, begin with either the morning or the evening routine for the first week.
  • Remember the words of Harvey Mackay: "A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline."

Information compiled from research done concurrent with the TTF Minority Report

- Patricia Velkoff, Chair