Tired Teens: Blame it on School Schedules ?

Sleep hygiene


We all have in mind the difficult awakenings of our teenagers. They don’t want to get out of bed, they drag themselves, they don’t want to eat anything… What if they simply got up too early compared to their physiological rhythm?

The structure of sleep in adolescents

Our sleep is not fixed in time. It undergoes changes throughout our lives. Babies have a polyphasic sleep, ranging from 16 to 20 hours, with a structure specific to them. As we grow, our sleep gradually takes on its classic structure, with a single phase of 7-8 hours comprising several repeating cycles. As we age, our sleep becomes fragmented again, and we experience an advance in phase: we go to bed earlier, wake up during the night, get up earlier, and take long naps.

Teenagers theoretically need 9 to 10 hours of sleep, similar to children. Therefore, parents often enforce an early bedtime, especially on school nights. This is where conflict arises. Teenagers seem stubbornly resistant to sleeping; they listen to music, chat with friends. The reason being, they physiologically cannot sleep. At their age, sleep is shifted, and a later bedtime would be more appropriate. According to a large-scale study conducted in the United States, they actually only begin to feel signs of sleepiness around 11:15 PM on average. This is also why teenagers linger in bed on weekends. They are not “lazy”; they are simply in tune with their sleep and try to make up for accumulated deficiencies during the week due to early-night insomnia.

What if starting school later was the solution?

That’s what an English school wanted to test. During one school year, Monkseaton High School in England pushed back the start of classes to 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. The results in end-of-year exams, equivalent to high school graduation, turned out to be much higher than in previous years, with grades increasing by 20 to 30%. Of course, this is not a scientific experiment, and it’s impossible to establish a direct link between later wake-up times and academic success with this example. However, it has been well proven that the longer a teenager sleeps, the better they perform in school. Therefore, if they cannot physiologically go to bed early, starting school later could be a path worth considering.

Is it up to them to adapt? Our tips to promote your teenager’s sleep

School schedules require our teenagers to wake up early. Therefore, we must adapt. Ideally, we should be able to at least advance bedtime to allow for at least 9 hours of sleep. To promote earlier sleep onset, it’s important, first and foremost, to standardize weekday and weekend rhythms. Without falling into a strict routine, parents can aim for a wake-up time of 9:30 a.m. on weekends to avoid shifting too far from the daily school schedule. It’s also crucial to pay attention to the hours leading up to bedtime:

  • Avoid intense exercise after 7 p.m.
  • Avoid heavy or late meals.
  • Limit protein intake at dinner. Opt for a carbohydrate-rich meal with vegetables, starches, a piece of fruit, and a bit of rapeseed or camelina oil.
  • Avoid stimulants before bedtime, such as caffeine and high-glycemic sugars. In other words, avoid sodas and sweets, even at the dinner table.
  • Avoid stimulating music like rap or hard rock.
  • Avoid screens just before bedtime: exposure to blue light emitted by TVs, computers, tablets, or smartphones inhibits the synthesis of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Therefore, it’s essential to allow time for relaxation between turning off the lights and going to bed.
  • Exposure to orange light to compensate can also be a solution, especially during study periods when it’s difficult to step away from the computer.
  • Establish bedtime rituals: a cool shower, herbal tea, reading time (while sitting, not in bed).
  • Prepare a conducive bedroom environment: unplug electrical devices, air out sheets and the room, close the blinds, lower the heating…

By Audrey Charial, nutritionist and micronutritionist