That’s my 14 month old asleep in his high chair. You might think I’m about to tell you a story about his sleep patterns, or lack thereof, but I’m not. I’m going to share some research with you about how much sleep a teenager needs and why schools may be a teenagers biggest problem when it comes to sleep.
Many parents have pushed for a later start to the school day for teenagers, with limited success. But parents just got a boost from the nation’s pediatricians, who say that making middle and high schoolers start classes before 8:30 a.m. threatens children’s’ health, safety and academic performance.
A couple of weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement calling on school districts to move start times to 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high schools, so that students can get at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep a night.
But it’s a change that most school districts have yet to embrace. Right now just 15 percent of high schools start at 8:30 or later, and 40 percent start before 8 a.m.
Letting teenagers sleep later typically means an earlier start for elementary schools, and sets off a cascade of adjustments. Teachers have to change their schedules, times shift for after-school activities and jobs, and older siblings who sit younger ones might no longer get home first.
But this is one area of health where the evidence is unequivocal, the pediatricians say. As children become teenagers, their sleep-wake cycle shifts two hours later, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, for them to go to sleep before 10:30 p.m.
As a result, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 59 percent of middle schoolers and 87 percent of high schoolers are getting less than the recommended 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep a night.
Studies have found that lack of sleep in teenagers increases the risk of traffic accidents, and makes them more vulnerable to depression and obesity. Teens who get more sleep do better academically, with better standardized test scores and better quality of life.
Caffeinating to get through the day or sleeping more on weekends doesn’t make up for the sleep deficits, the doctors note. “It’s not simply about getting teenagers to go to bed early or removing electronics from the bedroom,” one of the doctors says. “Those are important things, but the biology trumps a lot of these environmental factors. The average teenager can’t fall asleep at 11.”
I don’t have teenagers in my home just yet but I am on the school board in Clinton and we have been discussing the merits of changing start times to better accommodate the needs of the children we serve. At this point discussion is as far as it’s gone but there is clear scientific evidence that later start times improve kids academic and social performance.