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Articles Good Health

Sweet Dreams: Getting Teens the Sleep They Need

By Tanni Haas, Ph.D. | Contributor

Only about 8% of teens get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep a night, and that’s no small matter. Research shows that consistent sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, increased risk of catching the flu and the common cold, and makes it difficult to focus and do well in school. It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a lot that parents can do to help their teens get the sleep they need. Here’s what the experts suggest:

Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Help your teens keep a consistent sleep schedule. Child psychologist Dr. Alison Baker says that “consistency is really, really crucial in terms of building healthy sleep habits.” In other words, encourage your teens to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day – and that includes weekends. “If a kid’s sleep schedule shifts dramatically on the weekends – staying up most of the night and sleeping until midafternoon Saturday and Sunday – the chances of getting back to normal Sunday night are slim,” says Professor Juliann Garey of NYU.

Limit Afternoon Naps

Limit afternoon naps, no matter how tired they may be, when they get back from school. Naps make it hard to fall asleep at night, let alone at their regular time. If they really can’t stay awake in the afternoon, encourage them to take a short nap. “Sleeping for more than 20 minutes,” says child psychologist Dr. Daniel Lewin, “can throw off their nighttime sleep schedule.”

Turn Off Electronics Before Bedtime

Cellphones and laptops also make it hard for teens to fall asleep at night. The problem isn’t just that they’re texting with friends, posting on social media, and playing videogames instead of sleeping: the so-called blue light that electronic devices emit sends a signal to their brains that suppresses the production of melatonin and prevents them from feeling tired. Experts agree that teens can avoid this problem by putting away these electronic devices well before bedtime. As Dr. Lewin says, “Leave a buffer zone of at least an hour before going to bed.”

Parents may think that teens will rebel against this concept, but clinical psychologist Dr. Jeff Nalin says, “not having access to electronics and social media just might cause your teen to become bored and decide to go to sleep on his or her own.”

… And Charge Them Outside Their Bedroom

Don’t tempt your teens to turn on their phones or computers once they’re in bed. The best way to avoid that is to insist that they charge their devices anywhere in the house except their bedroom. “Consider having your teen leave their device in an area of the house that’s not their bedroom,” says registered nurse Mary Sweeney. “That’ll discourage them from reaching for it after they’ve shut off the lights.”

Reorganize Their Homework

You can help your teens stay away from electronics before they go to bed by having them do the homework that requires online access in the afternoon, and leaving offline homework for the evening. Have them do most of their homework right after they get home from school so that they can relax and unwind in the evening. “Anything to prevent teens from completing important deadlines at the end of the day,” says Ms. Mostafavi, “will make it easier to wind down for bed.”

Create an Unwinding Routine

When it’s time to wind down for the night, have your teen follow a set pattern. A nighttime routine, says Ms. Mostafavi, will “get their body into sleep mode and send the right signals to the brain that it’s time to snooze.” This could be anything from taking a hot bath or shower before they go to bed, to doing breathing exercises or writing in a journal.

Avoid Caffeinated Drinks

Finally, encourage your teens to limit their caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. They should avoid energy drinks, which often have more caffeine than coffee and tea. “If they’re craving something hot to drink,” says Kevin Asp, the founder of SomnoSure, a sleep medicine company, “then recommend a warm cup of herbal tea. One or two strong cups of tea can help them mellow out.”

Editor’s Note: Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.

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