Monday, February 1, 2021

Teenagers, Sleep, and the Global Pandemic

Gregory Rodden, DO
Pediatric Resident at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School
Member, Texas Medical Association

People across the world are suffering from a lack of sleep amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Children and teens suffer from sleep problems, and parents must recognize and address these issues while the world restlessly awaits the resolution of this health crisis. Good sleep is essential for everyone, young people in particular.

More and more, we hear about the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health. Sleep plays a critical role here. Severe sleep disturbances such as insomnia contribute to psychological stress, depression, and anxiety. The longer someone’s sleep disorders persist, the greater the impact they have on mental and physical health. 

Even before the pandemic, insomnia and delayed sleep-phase disorder (when a person routinely falls asleep two hours or longer after he or she should) were particularly prevalent among teens, but these issues have been worsened by the coronavirus. 

Whether teenagers are back to in-person learning or attending school virtually, they need to be in prime shape to thrive and learn. Teens, in particular, need about nine to nine and a half  hours of high-quality sleep on a nightly basis to keep their minds sharp and their bodies healthy. 

During our teenage years, most of us experienced a natural shift of our circadian rhythm, or sleep cycle, that delayed our internal bedtime to 11 pm or later. Couple this with early school start times, usually between 7 and 8 am, and it becomes clear why so many of us were groggy during our first few classes in high school. Sleep time was also scrunched by the time demanded for extracurriculars, sports, jobs, etc. 

Given these facts, what can we do to promote healthy sleep for our children, particularly teenagers, during and after the pandemic? 

Here are a few quick tips to help teens get that much-needed sleep: 

1. Help them to buy into the idea. Most teens like to feel a sense of autonomy over their ideas and decisions. Drop hints and clues that will help your teen to see how quality sleep will help to achieve his or her goals. When they feel like it’s their own idea, teens are more likely to change their behavior. 

2. Get some sun exposure. Make sure your teen is getting some sun early in the day to help keep their biological (circadian) clock well-regulated. This internal clock, which uses light and darkness to help prepare you to be active or sleep, is most sensitive to light (or darkness) from about two hours before the usual bedtime until the hour before usual wake-up time in the morning. The earlier they’re exposed to bright light, the earlier their body will set them up for sleep hours later.

3. No caffeine after lunchtime. Stimulating substances like caffeine will delay your teen’s natural bedtime. Studies show teens’ caffeine intake leads to an increase in sleep difficulties, sleep disturbances, and morning tiredness.

4. Set a daily bedtime and wake time. Keeping a consistent routine plays a key role in maintaining good, healthy sleep habits. 

5. No screens allowed in the bedroom at night. This includes cell phones, computers, tablets, televisions, etc. The blue light from the screen, and looking at virtual/online content, will keep your teen up late into the night

6. Keep the bedroom cool and dark. To fall asleep, our core body temperature needs to drop somewhat, so cooler bedroom temperatures will be helpful. The experts suggest a temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The blue light that comes from devices like cell
phones has been known to keep people from 
falling sleep, according to studies. 
7. Advocate for later school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed a school start time of 8:30 am or later for middle and high schools

8. Know when to ask for help. If your teen is suffering from insomnia despite trying the tips above and other tips for good sleep hygiene, it may be worthwhile to speak to their primary care physician about getting the help of a sleep expert

A good night’s sleep benefits our bodies more than we realize. When we sleep, we give our mind a chance to restore and boost memory and learning abilities – and for teenagers, who are still developing both physically and mentally – sleep is particularly important. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into a lot of aspects of their daily lives, sleep likely being one of them. However, if we help our teens build better sleeping habits, they can develop both mental and physical resilience that will boost their well-being, especially during this uncertain time.  

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