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Summer Sleep Schedules: Does Your Teenager Need One?

Summer can be a great time to catch up on sleep. But too little structure can also be a problem. How can you make sure your teen or tween is getting enough sleep this summer? We spoke with Sarah M. Honaker, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, about summer sleep schedules.

Q: When do sleep patterns begin to change for tweens and teens? 

Honaker: Many parents will notice changes in sleep when their child begins to enter puberty. In many mammals, puberty is associated with a normative delay in circadian rhythms—the daily cycle that helps determine what times of day a person feels more tired and more alert.

Q: So teens really do naturally tend to fall asleep and wake up later?

Honaker: Yes, and this delay in circadian rhythms has been linked to how far along an individual is in puberty—the farther along a child is with other pubertal changes, the greater the delay in sleep cycles.

Q: Should kids have some freedom from schedules in the summer?

Honaker: Most teens are asked to wake up too early during the school year, so it is nice to allow them to sleep on a more natural schedule over the summer. Typically, teens are tired between 10 and 11 p.m., and wake naturally between 8 and 9 a.m.

There is, of course, some natural individual variability. Scientists have identified chronotype genes that influence a person’s natural inclination regarding the times of day when they prefer to sleep or when they are most alert or energetic. For example, if one parent is a night owl, it isn’t surprising to see a child who also likes to stay up late.

Q: Should parents expect kids to take ownership of getting enough sleep?

Honaker: Kids vary in their ability to make good choices around their sleep and other areas of health. In the U.S., most high school children are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation also tends to get worse as kids become older adolescents. If you look at juniors and seniors in high school, they operate on chronic sleep deficiencies.

Some of this sleep deprivation is explained by the fact that parents, by this age, are less involved in monitoring their sleep. It is certainly fine to try this if a parent feels their child can do a good job managing their own sleep schedule. Be prepared, however, to step in if you see signs that your child still needs your help. (See sidebar.)

Q: How can parents make sure teens are getting enough sleep?

Honaker: Teens need 8-10 hours of sleep each night. The more rules there are around bedtime and enforcing good sleep habits, the more sleep teens get. These limits can include rules about the use of electronics at least an hour before bed, not using a phone or other screens after bedtime, having a set bedtime and waketime, and limiting caffeine consumption. Studies suggest that the more autonomy kids have about sleep, the less sleep they tend to get.

Q: But why does it matter what time of day teens get their sleep?

Honaker: Being awake during the day and sleeping at night is associated with better mood and productivity in kids and adults. Kids who sleep during the day and are awake at night are often getting less light exposure. They spend less time being active, and have fewer social interactions with family members and others.

Also, light exposure affects your circadian rhythms. A child who wakes at noon is not getting light exposure until that time, resulting in a further delay in natural sleep rhythms. Light exposure and wake time will greatly influence when a teen is ready to fall asleep at night.

Tips for Healthy Sleep Routines:

  • Kids ages 12-14:  Set a summer sleep schedule with a regular bedtime and waketime. Special exceptions for a party or family event are okay, but sticking to bedtime should be the norm.
  • Kids ages 15-17:  Offer a little more flexibility—maybe a set waketime, but they set the bedtime. If getting enough sleep becomes a problem, return to a set “lights out” time.
  • A set waketime is key. Most importantly, set a time to wake up in the morning. Wake time sets a person’s sleep drive for the day. The longer you are awake, the earlier you are ready for sleep that night.
  • Give electronics a bedtime. As a family, agree that both parents’ and kids’ electronics and screens will be shut down an hour before bedtime and kept out of bedrooms. In doing so, you model that healthy sleep is important for adults, too.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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