The Second Mouse: Some Thoughts on Teen Sleep

The Second Mouse: Some Thoughts on Teen Sleep

Written by Suzanne Condron, M.D. on Mar 7, 2015, 12:00:00 PM

What is it about teenagers and sleep?  Back in August, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement declaring adolescent sleep deprivation a public health issue. It urged high schools and middle schools to start the day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. so that teens could catch more zzzs.  The recommendation made a splash in the media … and probably any household with a teenager. Parents routinely bring their adolescents into my office with concerns about anemia, mono, thyroid problems or worse – because the kids are so tired all the time.  I generally start by asking the patient to talk me through his or her day.  Sometimes just hearing the answers is exhausting.

Teens Need More Sleep

One pattern I hear over and over again is that adolescents just can’t fall asleep before 11 p.m.  Teens need 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours of sleep, but that is tough to get if the bus comes at 6:30 a.m. The adolescent brain undergoes a natural shift in its circadian rhythms, and it feels like perpetual jet lag.  Melatonin, the “sleepy hormone,” is secreted by the brain’s pineal gland in response to dwindling sunlight. Starting in puberty, it takes up to two hours longer for the brain to make melatonin, making winding down more difficult. 


Set A ‘Media Curfew’

The omnipresence of screens only makes things worse for the confused pineal gland. When our eyes look at LED displays, our brains don’t distinguish between YouTube and sunlight. Moving TVs and computers out of bedrooms, dimming the lights and setting a “media curfew” an hour or two before the ideal bedtime can provide some damage control to the disrupted sleep-wake cycle.

A Sanctuary for Sleep

The trouble with late night media extends beyond the bright screens.  If a teen watches an action movie in his bedroom or spends hours stressing over homework, the brain is conditioned to feel overstimulated there even when the lights are out.  I encourage my tired patients to make their rooms as boring as possible so that it is easier to relax there at bedtime.

Sleep Deprivation Risks

Sleep-deprived kids are more prone to depression, irritability, impulsive behavior, poor concentration, and car accidents … not to mention obesity, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Is it any wonder the AAP declared teen sleep deprivation a public health issue? Changing a school’s start time is complicated, but those that have successfully carried it out report happier, more alert students, better attendance and fewer car accidents.One exhausted 15 year-old wryly summed it up for me:  “The early bird gets the worm – but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

Does your teen struggle with tiredness? Leave a comment and share some of the things you’re doing to ensure he or she gets enough sleep?

Suzanne-Condron-blogDr. Condron is a pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic – Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center whose clinical interests include obesity, nutrition, allergies, asthma, childhood development, literacy, infectious diseases and preventive medicine.


Topics: teen sleep, pineal gland, media curfew, early bird, melatonin, teenager sleep

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