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Kids should sleep in. Schools should start later, say pediatricians

August 27, 2014

If you have a middle or high school student in your home, you may have noticed that their sleep habits have changed as they’ve entered adolescence. They stay up late, find it hard to get up early in the morning and struggle with sleepiness throughout the day. Take heart. It’s not that your kid is being lazy or rebellious. There are real, biological changes happening in their bodies as they mature that make getting enough quality sleep a real challenge.

Studies have shown that as a child enters adolescence, there are two biological processes that occur which shifts a kid’s sleep schedule. First, the timing of the melatonin secretion in their brains changes, effectively switching them from a morning person to a night owl. Second, they experience a decreased “sleep drive.” In other words, it takes them longer to fall asleep.

This means that when your kid says that they struggle to fall asleep before 11p.m., they aren’t just making excuses. Their bodies have changed the rules on them.

Why is it important for teenagers to get enough sleep?

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that many teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived. Researchers have found that nearly 87% of high school students aren’t getting the recommended 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep that they need, and almost 59% of middle schoolers are already behind on their sleep schedule, too. Why is that a big deal?

A lack of sleep has been shown to affect many different areas of an adolescent’s development. Teenagers who are not getting enough sleep are more likely to experience:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol and type 2 Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Motor vehicle accidents due to “drowsy driving”
  • Higher levels of caffeine usage
  • Abuse of stimulants (i.e. nonmedical of ADHD medications)
  •  Lower levels of physical activity
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Less impulse control
  • Increase in risk-taking behaviors
  • Increased vulnerability to stress
  • Decreased ability in memory, organization, time management
  • Problems with memory and attention
  • Lower academic achievement
  • Poor school attendance
  • Higher school drop-out rates
As you can see, this is a substantial list. Sleep deprivation can affect nearly every area of a teenager’s life. Sleep, or lack of it, can have real, long-lasting consequences and can dramatically change the landscape of a teen’s physical and mental health, academic performance and quality of life.

Pediatricians recommend that schools have a later start time

As evidence has mounted over time that teenagers need more sleep, the question for parents and pediatricians alike has become, “What can we do about it?”.

Several studies have addressed that very question, and the evidence points to an intervention that has proven beneficial to teenagers: moving back the school start times. If we know that teenagers’ biological clocks are set to prefer going to sleep later and waking later, shouldn’t our school times reflect that need?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so. (Read their recommendation here). Several studies have demonstrated that later school start times (i.e start times after 8:30 a.m.) result in an increase in number of hours teenagers are sleeping as well as improved attendance rates, lower dropout rates, less daytime sleepiness. Some studies have shown an increase in academic performance, but this outcome has varied from study to study.

There are certainly challenges to achieving later start times in school. A school district must contend with financial constraints and balance the needs of students of every age, not to mention manage transportation as well as staffing challenges. It’s no small request to ask for the change of a school start time. However, it is clear that the medical community, those that we charge with the task of caring for our kids’ mental, physical and emotional health, have come to a clear consensus.

Later school start times are better for our teenagers.

It’s our job as parents to start having these tough conversations with our schools. Our kids need it.