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Teen Sleep Patterns

Rebellion or Routine?

To sleep like a newborn is to fall asleep and awaken often and regularly, on a schedule by which you | could set your watch. To sleep "like a baby" is to fall into a deep and blissful state of slumber, not easily disturbed. To sleep like a teenager is to stay awake all hours of the night, defying house rules with a flashlight or the glow of a computer screen, only to encounter a complete inability to greet the dawn's early light with more than a grunt or a groan and a grab at the covers.

To many parents, the paradox of teen sleep is nothing a set of boundaries and a good alarm clock couldn't resolve. But compliance isn't always a cure. In fact, according to Dr. Richard Kanak, medical director at Community Hospital's Sleep Disorders Center, the phenomenon of teens not wanting to go to sleep at night and not being able to get up in the morning is actually part of their normal biology for that time of life.

"Teens," says Kanak, "experience what is called 'delayed sleep phase syndrome.' There is a clock in our brain that controls different things that vary throughout the day, such as when certain hormones are released, how active certain organs are, and when the brain wants to sleep. The timing of sleep is tied somewhat to when the brain releases the melatonin hormone."

The release of melatonin occurs later in the evening for teenagers than for adults, shifting their internal clock and leaving them unable to fall asleep until after midnight and often not until 1 or 2 a.m. Yet because teens still need between eight and nine hours of sleep, their brain often does not want to wake up until 9 or 10 a.m., if not later.

"Teens have to wake up around 6 or 7 a.m. to get to school, but then they fall asleep late into the night, becoming sleep deprived all week long," Kanak says. "The normal compensatory response is for them to sleep until noon on weekends, but they still won't go to sleep any earlier. It's not in their makeup."

The best we can do, Kanak says, is to understand that teen sleep patterns are not a form of rebellious behavior but rather an element of biology. While we can't force teenagers to go to sleep, we can help them slow down any rousing evening activities that might derail their efforts to doze off, such as listening to loud music, playing video games, or watching action movies.

"You should also try to minimize light exposure after 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening," Kanak says. "The fact that we're exposed to less light in the evening is normal and conducive to sleep, a phenomenon that actually worked very well before the advent of electric lights. The excessive amount of light in the evening shifts our internal clock, making us want to begin and end our sleep later."

According to Kanak, you can actually shift a teen's internal clock by darkening the sleep environment earlier in the evening and by introducing light early in the morning when it's time to get up for school. If exposed to 30 minutes of bright light by sitting in the early morning sunlight, taking a walk outside, or eating breakfast in front of a commercially available bright light, the teen's clock will begin to creep back and reset, allowing him or her to fall asleep earlier.

"There's also nothing wrong with teens taking a nap after school when they have a chance, which adds to their total sleep time," Kanak says. "And if you can, allow them to sleep a little more during the weekend. The need for more sleep, and the shift in the internal clock among teens, has received recognition to the point where the National Institutes of Health funded research in a few school districts across the country. They actually promoted later start and end times in high schools to more closely suit a teen's readiness to pay attention in class."

A common phenomenon in high schools is the complaint that students are dozing or not paying attention during their early morning classes. But by 10 a.m., the brain is ready to be awake. Which means that teens might want to start the day with something stimulating like P.E. or marching band and save the math for later.