Sunday, February 11, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 11, 2001

Family Matters
Teenagers often need a lot more sleep than they get

By Lynne Wikoff
Special to The Advertiser

Time demands seem to escalate during the teen years as homework, sports, social activities and, often, jobs shift into high gear.

Unfortunately, these responsibilities, along with school’s early start time, conflict with teenagers’ daily sleep needs: Research has shown that the average teen needs 9 to 10 hours of sleep, but tries to get by with 6à to 7 hours.

Worse yet, even when teens have the opportunity to go to sleep early, they often insist they don’t feel tired. And they may not be just pretending.

Researchers at the Brown University School of Medicine have found that the "body clock," the brain mechanism that tells us when we’re tired, is reset for a later-than-ideal time during the teen years, so they may not be ready for slumber until close to midnight.

The result is that many teens are sleep-deprived: They suffer daytime drowsiness and may have trouble concentrating and making good decisions. Some sleepyheads are also grouchy or more emotional than usual. And if they drive while drowsy, they increase the risk of having an accident, and may even fall asleep at the wheel. Add even the slightest amount of alcohol, and the risk rises dramatically.

To counteract their chronic tiredness, teens often try to make up for lost weekday sleep with Rip Van Winkle-like weekends, a habit that only makes matters worse, according to neurologist and sleep specialist Dr. James Pearce, neurologist and sleep disorder specialist at Straub Clinic & Hospital.

"Sleeping late on weekends resets the internal sleep clock to an even later hour, leading to Sunday night insomnia and Monday morning dysfunction. It’s better to get up at your regular weekday time, then, if necessary, take a short nap in the early afternoon," he says.

Linda Kapuniai, clinical associate at Straub’s Sleep Disorders Center, agrees. "Regularity of sleep is almost as important as quantity," she says.

She advises a "good sleep environment," starting with a dark, quiet room with a temperature in the low 70s. Sleep comes more easily when people also avoid erratic eating patterns, forego caffeine after noon, and curtail physically or mentally stimulating activities, such as exercise, watching TV or playing computer games, before bedtime.

In addition, the National Sleep Foundation suggests getting into bright light as soon as the alarm sounds in the morning to help stimulate the body’s awakening cycle, and avoiding bright lights in the evening to stimulate the sleep cycle.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any parents with success stories to share. And Linda, who faced this issue as a mom when her now-grown children were teenagers, acknowledges, "There’s no easy answer."

She does, however, recommend that parents educate their teens and regulate (and encourage them to regulate) their environment as much as feasible to support good sleep habits.

For teens who are especially troubled by lack of sleep, Linda recommends they keep a sleep diary. They should note the time they go to bed and wake up, whether they awaken during the night, whether they nap and, if so, for how long, and rate the quality of their sleep.

They should also record the times of meals and consumption of caffeine-containing foods and drinks, and evening activities they engage in. After a week, they can review the diary to see whether any patterns are revealed that could be altered to improve their sleep.

She recommends that parents treat sleepiness and driving with the same concern given to drinking and driving - that is, a zero tolerance policy. "Parents need a strategy to be sure over-tired kids get home safely and avoid risky situations," she says.

Finally, when there’s no obvious explanation for sleep deprivation or daytime sleepiness, an evaluation by a health professional may reveal the source of the problem.

Two Hawaii parents, Lynne Wikoff and Kaøhua Lucas, take turns writing the Family Matters column.

Tell us about it

How do you handle your children’s TV watching? Please share your tips and stories to help other parents.

Write to: Family Matters,Ohana Section, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail or fax 535-8170.

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