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Parents: conquer your sleepy teen's woes now

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Parents wanting to get their tired, late-snoozing teens into healthy, sustainable sleeping habits should take action now, sleep specialists urge. 

Experts at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney are concerned that rising rates of sleep deprivation among Australian high school students are taking a heavy toll on mood and learning. Dr Chris Seton, the Woolcock’s adolescent sleep physician, says the back-to-school period offers parents a unique opportunity to sort out their teenager’s sleep habits for the year ahead. Chris has created our 10 tips to help teens sleep better.

“With the days getting shorter, the end of daylight savings approaching and the absence of end-of-year burnout and exam stress, this is the time to get your child into a healthy sleep-wake routine,” Dr Seton says. “Sleep training now is twice as likely to be successful as it is towards the end of the year, and it means you get that happier, higher-performing teen sooner.”

Studies suggest 70 per cent of NSW students are chronically sleep deprived, a statistic that has doubled in the last 15 years. “Teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep each night, but most average just 7 hours,” Dr Seton explains. “They go through their busy, social school week building up a sleep debt of 10-15 hours. Trying to ‘catch up’ with big weekend sleep-ins just perpetuates the cycle of poor sleep and ultimately makes things worse.”

Sleep deprived adolescents are more likely to have psychological issues, reduced school attendance and more risk-taking behaviours like drug taking and reckless driving. “They’re also less likely to retain newly-learned information because their brain is essentially in cognitive shutdown,” says Dr Seton, a specialist at the Woolcock Paediatric Sleep Clinic.

The good news is that chronic sleep deprivation is treatable, first and foremost by regulating weeknight bedtimes and limiting access to screens in the hour before bed. Dr Seton acknowledges teens lack insight into their sleepiness and its impact, and are not interested in prioritising sleep. Therefore it falls to parents to act as bedtime vigilantes. “Teenagers get a lot of FOMO no matter the time of day. No way do they want to miss out on social communication opportunities so parents need to lead the charge.” 

The specialist advises parents to take advantage of the time of year and set new sleep practices in place. “Start as you plan to continue by locking in a realistic week night bedtime, getting devices out of the bedroom and limiting weekend sleep-ins to 1-2 hours at the most,” Dr Seton says. “Once these rules are in place, parents  should feel empowered to enact them. The benefits to your kids and your family as a whole will be many and plentiful.”

Those teenagers who don’t improve despite at-home sleep management can seek specialist treatment in person at the Woolcock Paediatric Sleep Clinic, or online with SleepShack, a web-based personalised sleep treatment program for teens and tweens developed by the Woolcock specialist team. “Sometimes additional expertise is needed to gradually shift that bedtime forward,” Dr Seton says.

Top tips to get teens sleeping

Check out our 10 sleep tips for teens, with a printable poster you can hang on the wall or attach to your fridge.

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