Puberty brings a ton of changes to a young person's life, but now we have evidence that the changes children experience in their sleep between the ages of 11 and 12 can happen sooner than the usual physical changes in adolescence. In a study released the first week of December in the journal Sleep, researchers reported that:
• As they approach puberty, kids' ability to fall asleep was delayed by 50 minutes, and total sleep times were reduced by 37 minutes.
• Girls slept better than boys.
• Aside from the biological changes happening that can affect sleep, psychological issues related to school demands, social activities, and technological distractions can lead to the development of bad sleep habits.
I've written about the sleep habits of adolescents numerous times. Parents are often confused by a teenager's odd sleep habits, as most teens prefer to go to bed late, and wake up late (despite the morning school bell). Everyone should know that this change in sleep times is based on biological changes, not simply that they want to stay up late and sleep late. Unfortunately, the world doesn't revolve around a child's maturing transitional phases, leading many youths to struggle with getting up in the morning, or going to bed at a "reasonable" hour.
The authors of this latest study provide a new opportunity to look at the sleep habits of young adolescents and preteens. Having a deeper understanding of the interrelationships between sleep and puberty may provide new insights into where our adolescents can be vulnerable for both behavioral and emotional health problems.
Indeed, the more we know about a young person's developing sleep habits, the better we can support optimal habits for a lifetime of good nights.
So the best you can do as a parent living with a night owl is to respect their current biological sleep needs as much as possible and instill as many good sleep habits in them as possible. They may want to go to bed late, but that doesn't mean they should continue to hoot with the owls after midnight, only to be in a fog all morning long the next day. I know, finding that perfect balance between letting them do what they want and forcing bedtime rules is tough. But the sooner they establish healthy habits, the sooner you'll reclaim your sanity through those tough teenage years.
• Educate them on their body's changing needs for sleep
• Allow them to sleep in on the weekends, but only about 1-2 hours later than normal. Sleeping all day is not going to help them; it will actually make them feel more exhausted.
• Have them go outside and get DIRECT SUNLIGHT in the morning, this will help re-set their biological clock, and make it easier to go to bed earlier.
• Stay away from products with melatonin, many of these can have doses that may be too large and we do not understand how they may affect an adolescent's growing body and brain.
• Encourage them to get up and get out - daily exercise will also help re-set their biological clock. Sitting in front of the TV or computer will only make matters worse.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep DoctorTM