Over the school holidays, our teenagers have been enjoying late nights and even later mornings. They’ve been playing Xbox, Facebooking and watching DVDs till the wee hours, waking only when the lunchtime hunger pangs hit.
But holidays are at an end and parents are now facing a zombie child in the morning and Jack Russell terrier in the evenings, wondering if it was such a good idea to let their kids throw bedtime routine to the wind.
Dr Sarah Blunden, founder and director the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep, says: “Yes, why not? The only way we know if we have had enough sleep is if we wake up naturally, without an alarm, and that is what teenagers usually do during school holidays. And going to bed later and getting up later is a natural part of adolescent development.”
Dr Blunden explains that during adolescence there is a delay in the time when melatonin (one of the sleep hormones that makes us sleepy) is released from our brains to our bodies. Therefore adolescents are not tired until later in the evening, but because of school they can’t sleep later in the morning to compensate for late nights.
“As a result, adolescents are usually very sleepy during the school week as they miss out on a couple of hours sleep per night. By the end of the week they may have a ‘sleep debt’ of 10 hours.”
Generally it’s believed most adolescents need about nine hours’ sleep a night, but most kids are not getting enough and report being sleepy during the school day. They get increasingly sleepy over the school week and term.
So holidays are a great time for your teenager to get all the sleep they need, at the times that come naturally to them. But what happens when school starts again? Dr Blunden says they will need to retrain their bodies to sleep and wake earlier. “Your child will need to adjust their bedtime and wake time bit by bit – you can’t do it in one hit.”
She recommends bedtime be moved back 15 minutes every two days, and simultaneously in the morning for wake time. Don’t be tempted to take it faster than that. “They can’t go back 15 minutes every night, as the body can’t work that fast,” says Dr Blunden. “They can only go faster if they are falling asleep faster.”
The other essential step to re-establishing an earlier bedtime routine is to reduce exposure to light at night – “get off the phone, get off the computer and get out of the TV room” – and increase exposure to natural light in the morning to make them alert.
Follow these steps to reset their circadian rhythm, and within a week your teenager should be back to a school sleep routine. Until the next school holidays.
About the expert
Dr Sarah Blunden is Head of Paediatric Sleep Research at CQ University, Adelaide, and the founder and director the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep (ACES), the first centre for sleep education in Australia.
The mission of ACES is to educate and inform education and health professionals, communities, parents, children and young people about the importance of sleep and what happens when we don’t get enough.
Read more about sleep problems in adolescents from the ACES website.