Back to school, earlier to bed

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.”

Photo by Megan Jean, Flickr

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.




  1. This is so true by the end of each term my 14 year old is exhausted. These holidays have been late nights and no sign of life until near on lunchtime. I’ve been dreading trying to get her back into a routine. But I’ll go with the plan – 15 minutes earlier to bed tonight.
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  2. Amanda Kevric says:

    Thanks for the informative read. I was dreading next week but tonight it will be lights out 15 minutes earlier.

    • The Kids Are All Right says:

      Thanks for the comment Amanda. I suspect the challenge for many parents will be knowing what time your teen has been going to sleep, to start moving that bedtime.

  3. This is great, we do the natural light in the mornings, especially during school term and it does help. We are trying the gradual earlier bed time already. Glad to know that it is part of just being a teenager.

  4. I’m sitting here with emails in front of me from the twins school and a huge wodge of info from the big boys school and am panicking madly. Need a cup of tea. I’m not ready!!

    I like the teens to sleep in, but they stay up after me and last night were awake until 2am which was taking it too far. Time to start the re-programming chez nous. This is when I really wish my husband was here to help get the discipline going as he has far more self discipline than me.
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    • It is really hard to do things solo. Perhaps the place to start is simply to start waking them earlier – opening the door and blinds, making plenty of noise etc. After a few early mornings they may be more inclined to go to sleep earlier.

  5. My son is only four and has always been a shocker with sleep. Even though he is so young and is very active most days, he has trouble getting to sleep before 9.30pm at the moment. During the two weeks he had off preschool over Christmas he was staying up until around 10.30-11pm and waking up at 9am.

    I’ve been slowly trying to get him back to 8.30pm which is ideal for both of us but he still struggles to quieten his mind for sleep at 9.30.

    I think I need to set the alarm and make him get up at 7 (rather than 8am) to try to turn his sleep patterns around. I also cannot wait until daylight savings is over. Ned’s sleep always seems to be better in the winter.

    Good article!
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    • Your son sounds so much like my youngest (3) – it’s so tedious. Unfortunately our munchkin wakes us at 6, so she’s very tired and naughty all the time. Am hoping I won’t be saying the same thing in 10 years time.



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