Over the past decade mounting evidence finds that teens are chronically sleep deprived and subsequently suffering significant health effects. Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming the norm for our high schoolers and is known to cause both mental and physical health challenges. In fact The National Sleep Foundation found that over 85% of high schoolers aren’t getting the 8-10 hours of sleep they need while over 50% of middle school students are already falling behind in their zzzzz’s.
The evidence is in: teens who don’t get enough sleep can have academic challenges, an increase risk for sleepiness-caused car accidents, inattention, risk for overweight, risk for anxiety, greater use of stimulants like caffeine or prescription medications, and mood disorders.
This is a biology thing not a laziness thing. That teenager who can’t get out of bed until 11am on the weekends is just tired and trying to catch up! Puberty changes all sorts of things in our life, one major biologic shift occurs in the brain as children morph into adults. Around the age of 12, instead of naturally falling asleep at 8 o’clock like children in middle childhood, tweens and teens’ sleep cycle shifts about 2 to 3 hours making it a real challenge to fall asleep prior to 10 or 11pm. That means those teens up and awake until 11pm are really just acting their age.
The causes of sleep loss for teens are complex. Early school start times, use of electronics, smartphones, and tablets interfere with sleep as do homework, extra-curricular activities, and sports. But so do misperceptions — the same research that found over 85% of HS students weren’t getting enough sleep also noted that >70% of parents to those tired teens felt their child was getting enough sleep! We have to make sleep a priority in our homes.
The Problem With The Middle And High School Bell:
Many schools get going startlingly early which leaves teens very little time in bed. Students I see in clinic talk about “period zero” that starts prior to 7am — often the period is a chance for bible study, choir, music, or the activities like the school newspaper. It seems if you want to get involved, you get up early. In my opinion this is likely not in a teen’s best interest as most all of those teens I see are sleep deprived. However research finds even for those less eager students the school bell comes too soon. Over 40% of high schools in the US start prior to 8am while only 15% of schools in the United States start after the recommended 8:30am.
Consider letting your teen sleep until 7:00am?
When school starts early and teens aren’t off to sleep until around 11pm at night it’s impossible to get adequate sleep (8.5-9.5 hours) and arrive at school before 8am. Many teens are getting a mere 6 or 7 hours of sleep each night. Further, even though sleeping in on the weekends, taking naps after school, or drinking caffeine may help students survive immediate moments of drowsiness, those fixes don’t restore normal brain alertness that comes with sufficient sleep.
Shifting School Start Times:
Today the American Academy of Pediatrics took a bolder step issuing a new policy statement to ensure our nation starts to prioritize sleep. The AAP urged our nation to change start times to accommodate teen sleep, urging middle and high schools to strive for a start time after 8:30am to accommodate teens getting the 8-10 hours of sleep they need. They encourage pediatricians, teachers, coaches, and other stakeholders to talk about the cultural and biologic reasons teens get less sleep.
Pediatrician and lead author Dr. Judith Owens said, “The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth. By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”
For more information:
Let The Teens Sleep (reviews Seattle School Board decisions and data behind delaying school start times)
Kim C says
I agree that the students need more sleep. How would the schools accomplish that though? By making the littlest ones go to school the earliest? Then who would be home to get them from the bus stop? My high school-er goes to school first and comes home to nap, snack, work and 6 hours of homework. My middle school-er goes to to school next and comes home to rest and snack and hours of dance classes. My elementary school-er would go to school last but i drop her at before-care. She returns home latest and that allows the big kids to pick her up and make sure she does her home work, snacks and prepare for hours of dance class. This is our reality. I would love to see it change while still allowing the big kids homework and job time. I am interested in how , as parents, we can do what is best for our kids while still helping them (and us) juggle it all.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
You ask a great question (would love commenters expertise here)– how can we serve children and teens with different needs both in the school environment and in the home environment with all the scheduling challenges in place already! No question that the big kids still do need homework and work time and the goal of the statement is to shift the day just an hour later to allow for them to sleep so could be ready for the big days they are already tackling.
I completely understand the research and the rationale to try to change school hours to better meet the needs of sleep deprived adolescents. However, what will working parents (like myself) do, especially those of us with special needs kids who need prompts and adult supervision to get ready for the day and get to school? My child has sleep issues already. Later bell times would force me to get my child up extra early to go to morning childcare across the city, would add an extra long bus ride from childcare to school in rush hour traffic, and would result in additional childcare costs that are not sustainable, compounding existing sleep issues. There would be additional stress and less sleep for many kids in this subset of the population (kids who are already under enormous stress just to do the basics that typically developing peers can take for granted). With the growing number of kids affected by developmental issues, there are more than a few adolescents and families who would be negatively affected. In cases like mine, a later bell time would equate to a lot more stress for my child, certainly an unintended consequence of a movement meant to confer health benefits. I recognize that my child is not in the majority meant to be served by later bell times. Still, it could negatively impact those who need the benefits of more sleep just as much, if not more, than typically developing peers, just to function at baseline.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Unsure if you’re local but I would suggest you share your story and really important points about work schedule, childcare coverage on the edges of school days, etc with your local school board if and or when they discuss the possibility of swapping start times for teens. Your needs may be different from others, as would mine, etc. Best way to share this type of story in my mind is to attend a school board meeting where this is discussed and keep in touch with school admin and teachers who can help you advocate for a feasible and healthy solution for your child/teen.
This push to move start times is complex, costly, and requires a huge commitment not only on the schools behalf but also on all of our families who do our best to juggle the needs of our children amidst our busy working lives. Thanks so much for your comment (and follow-up comment below).
I’m so glad the AAP issued this policy statement! Thanks for helping get the news out there. Our household is transitioning from a 9:30 a.m. start time for grade school to a 7:45 a.m. start time for middle school. The school day isn’t that long, so working parents of young children have to find help on one end or the other, no matter the start time. I hope the Seattle school board changes things up based on the scientific evidence.
Just to clarify my post, most working parents I know already have help on one end, i.e. after school childcare (as I do). My child spends too much time already in childcare. Many parents must work full time and don’t have another option. The need for additional childcare as a result of bell time changes, i.e. before and after school care, places a burden on children, and results in less (or reduced quality) parent-child time. I wonder what other solutions may exist that haven’t yet been thought of.
Tori Floe says
Message sent to the AAP today:
“Let Them Sleep: AAP Recommends Delaying Start Times of Middle and High Schools to Combat Teen Sleep Deprivation” Is being reviewed, cited and acted upon by local school districts. Congratulations. However, what school Start Time Task Forces are failing to recognize is that young children, of Elementary School age, need EVEN MORE SLEEP than teenagers. They need 11-13 hours of sleep for their growth and development, etc…
Thus, our school district is now considering the options (two of three) of having our Elementary Schools start at either 7:40 am or almost 10:00 am. Neither option is ideal for young children, I’m almost certain you can agree.
Seattle Public schools have changed their start times for teenagers in order to address your concerns- and young children are not starting before the teens! Why? The schools, Elem, MS and HS all share the same buses. A fact I’m certain your article did not take into consideration.
Please review your recommendations and make adjustments accordingly. While young children do not hold down jobs and really young children are not yet in school-related sports, they deserve at least as much consideration as teenagers.
Call me tough, but I started HS and MS at 8 in the morning. I also worked, participated in sports, Knowledge Bowl, Debate, etc… I expect teenagers to make choices that allow them to handle their daily schedule and responsibilities. Welcome to life!
It is unconscionable that school districts are considering starting school for Elementary children at times that they are trying to change for Middle School and High School children- for the same reasons the change is happening in the first place!
Thank you for your time.
Tori Floe says
oops, now starting before the teens… ‘not’ starting was a typo. 😉