Should Teenagers Sleep in to Avoid Insomnia?

It may seem like strange advice, but should you let your teen sleep in? A growing body of research evidence suggests that this might actually be good for teenagers, helping to improve morning sleepiness and easing the effects of insomnia among night owls. These teens may be more attentive and productive in school and the rates of absenteeism may actually drop. Why do teens respond so well to sleeping in and should we move to allow teens to stay in bed a little later each day to improve their sleep? Learn how night owls with a delayed sleep phase can optimize sleep, reducing insomnia and morning sleepiness.

Sleepy teenager in car
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Unique Characteristics of Teen Sleep

Sleep during adolescence is unique. As the brain matures in the teenage years, we actually tend to require a considerable amount of sleep. (Teens need an average of 9 hours of sleep per night.) Moreover, the timing of this sleep tends to be delayed. If left to their own preferences, many teens often go to bed and wake later than the rest of society. Any parent who has seen their teen sleep in past noon can readily attest to this.

This delayed sleep period is likely due to their developing circadian rhythms. As we mature, the desire for sleep (called sleep drive) and wakefulness lessens and our circadian cycle becomes longer. During the transition period of adolescence, as with many things in this awkward phase, difficulties may occur.

There may be trouble going to sleep (insomnia), or excessive daytime sleepiness upon awakening in the morning. The combination of the two is called delayed sleep phase syndrome. Many night owls naturally want to fall asleep closer to 2 to 5 AM and won't want to wake until 10 AM or later. The desired timing of sleep may conflict with social obligations.

Social Consequences and Results of Delayed School Start Times

As a result of their desired sleep preferences, teens who stay up late and sleep in often struggle with missing morning classes and accumulating school absences. If they go to bed earlier, they will lie there awake and struggle to get to sleep. It can be nearly impossible to drag them out of bed in the morning.

When these teens do attend school, they may fall asleep during early classes or have other behavioral problems. Poor concentration may lead to failing grades. By getting fewer hours of sleep at night, sleep deprivation can become a significant problem. In younger children, sleep problems may manifest as inattention and hyperactivity.

There are some effective treatment options for delayed sleep phase syndrome. In particular, it is highly important for these teens to get exposed to morning sunlight upon awakening. Ideally, these teenagers would get 15 to 30 minutes of sunlight exposure within 15 minutes of waking. This helps to make it easier to wake and also easier to fall asleep a little earlier. In some cases, a light box may need to be substituted when sunrise does not occur early enough, especially in the winter months.

In addition, school districts that have delayed their start times have noticed positive effects. Students are shown to have improved attendance and are able to perform better. Extending this practice to other schools may help our teenagers to do their best by compensating for changes in their sleep patterns.

2 Sources
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  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Teenagers and sleep: How much sleep Is enough?.

  2. Stanford Health Care. Bright light therapy.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.