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  • Writer's picturePaula Robertson

Helping teens get better sleep

Practical tips to help improve sleep quality for young people.

Ah, quality sleep....that elusive element. Our recent experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, online school and social distancing has definitely disrupted the sleep schedules of your teens and young people, often with detrimental effects. I’m often struck by the stories of young people with no consistent bedtime, who are up until the wee hours of the morning on their devices (usually while parents have long gone to bed), then struggle with brain fog or sometimes will sleep until well into the afternoon of the following day.

So what’s the problem with that? To answer this, we first need to understand sleep. I always say that sleep isn’t wasted time, but instead a vital necessity to allow our bodies to restore, heal, repair and rejuvenate. It also facilitates the processing of new material we’ve learnt during the day, and the laying down of long-term memories and learning. In short, sleep affects every area of your life, rejuvenating both body and mind. Good sleep has many positive effects including weight loss, happiness, improved immunity and better school performance.

Sleep isn't just wasted time, but a vital necessity to allow our bodies to restore, heal, repair and rejuvenate.

The discussion on sleep needs to consider both the quantity and quality of sleep. In terms of quantity, the US-based National Sleep Foundation recommends the following guidelines:

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11- 14 hours of total sleep per 24 hours (including naps)

Preschool (3-5 years): 10-13 total hours of sleep per 24 hours (naps may get shorter or stop completely)

Primary School age (6 – 12 years): 9-12 hours of sleep per night

Teens (13-19 yrs): 8 – 10 hours of sleep per night

I usually recommend counting backwards from the wake-up time to determine optimal bedtime. Let’s say for example, your 12 year old son has to be up for school by 7 am the following day, then estimating that 10 hours of sleep is required, he really should be in bed and asleep by 9pm (meaning bedtime preparation should start from 8pm).

So why then are so many kids, teens and young people struggling to achieve quality sleep? The answer relates to our bodies’ circadian rhythm – the natural cycle of hormones like cortisol (which gets up going) and melatonin, which gets us ready for sleep. This impacts other cycles such as our blood pressure, alertness and even appetite. When we keep a consistent bedtime routine and avoid excessive stimulants (like caffeine, alcohol or electronic devices), our body’s natural rhythm is maintained. We each have our own circadian rhythm, and there has been some interesting discussion around the fact that in the teen years, generally the sleep rhythm tends to start later in the evening, meaning that teens generally are at their peak wakefulness later in the day. Some US schools have therefore started experimenting with a later start to the school day, and there is already some evidence that this is beneficial for teens to feel more receptive and awake in the classroom. On a background of less than optimal sleep for many teens, during COVID 19 school closures and lock downs, screen time usage has further exploded, and there has been an erosion of usual school routines and extra-curricular activities, all impacting sleep.

So how do we maintain a healthy sleep habit? Here are 5 main recommendations:

1. Keep one consistent bedtime routine, and an optimal sleep environment.

You want to maintain roughly the same bedtime every night, including weekends, to help regulate those cycles we talked about earlier, and provide the ideal amount of sleep, using the guidelines mentioned above. It's also important to create the optimum sleep environment – ideally a room that’s cool, dark and has no distractions like a TV or computer.

2. Do not drink caffeine after 2pm. Caffeine can take up to 6 - 8 hours to be metabolized out of our blood streams, so avoid drinking caffeinated beverages like coca-cola, coffee, black tea or energy drinks in the afternoon or evening period.

3. Manage recreational screen time. In particular, it’s important to switch off devices one hour before bed, as the blue light that they emit disrupts your body’s natural sleep rhythms and can make it harder to fall asleep. It’s also recommended that you switch off notifications, and charge devices outside of the bedroom, to reduce the ‘pull’ factor and temptation to check the devices overnight. Instead, prepare your body for a good night’s rest by dividing the hour pre-bedtime into thirds:

1 third (20 minutes): getting things ready for the next day – for example, packing away books, checking homework is all done, and laying out books, equipment or clothes for the next day.

1 third (20 minutes): getting yourself ready for sleep – putting on pyjamas, washing your face and brushing teeth for example.

1 third (20 minutes): getting thoughts out of your head, for instance by journaling, having a gratitude practice (listing 3 things you’re grateful for), listening to relaxing music or reading a book.

4. Get regular exercise (but not right before bed). Regular physical activity, at least one hour three times a week, is important for a good night’s sleep. This could be as simple as taking a jog, walking the dog or doing a home exercise routine. However, immediately after exercise, there’s a natural spike in energizing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, so it’s not advisable to exercise right before bed.

5. As soon as you get up in the morning, go outdoors or open the windows and let in as much natural sunlight as possible. This helps to switch off the melatonin, clear brain fog and get the brain going for the day ahead.

I challenge you to try these tips with your teens (and yourselves!) over the next few weeks and watch sleep improve, bringing with it improvements in energy, mood and focus during the day. Happy dreaming!

Be well,


Dr Paula Robertson is a mom and a paediatrician with over twenty years' experience in working with children, young people and their families.

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