Case Study: A mother of a 17-year old high-school senior contacted me . She was concerned that the young man wasn’t getting enough sleep. He played a sport every season, and got decent grades. He had friends and did not demonstrate any evidence of behavior or mood changes. The problem was that he appeared to sleep until the afternoon every Saturday. How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get?
How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get?
The answer to the question is fairly easy: it is 9 1/2 hours, according to most sleep experts. When I told this to the high schooler who is the subject of this case study, he gave a fairly typical reply:
“Ha. Ha-ha. Ha-HA-ha.”
I get that a lot.
The sarcasm, not meant to be rude, was his way of expressing that there was not a chance in hell he’d be able to get that much sleep. There simply were not enough hours in the day for him to get everything done and to sleep 9 1/2 hours!
Let’s call him “Nate”. A typical weekday ran as follows: Nate’s alarm would go off at 7:30 am. He’d take approximately 10 minutes to get out of bed and stumble to the bathroom. Breakfast for Nate consisted of a protein smoothie. He told me this had been his breakfast of choice for as long as he could remember. Nate never had been much of a big breakfast eater.
The most important meal of the day
That wasn’t a bad choice. I was glad to hear he got some protein in before school. Nate is 5 feet, 8 inches, 140 lbs. He’s a long-distance track athlete. Nate probably wouldn’t have made it to lunch block without something in his system.
Good diet is one of the three legs upon which all of health stands. The others are exercise and sleep(!). Some experts add stress reduction as a fourth leg.
Nate’s school is 1.1 miles from his home. He almost never walked or rode his bike. His mother drove him. This gave Nate a time cushion to help him get out of the house. Nate is lucky in this regard. Teenagers who need to catch a bus have tighter time constraints. If they miss the bus, they are sore out of luck, so they have to work harder at going out of the house.
If the teenager is old enough to drive, I hope they got enough sleep the night prior. It is well known that teen sleepiness is associated with accidents during the morning drive.
First block in Nate’s day starts at 8:30 am, one hour after he wakes up.
Nate Hits the Road
School lets out at 2:20 pm. Nate changes into running shorts and runs with his friends to track practice. He will not be home until 6:00 pm. Noah eats before showering, much to the chagrin of his mother and his younger brother. This particular issue is beyond the scope of our consult!
By the time Nate has eaten and showered, it is 7:oo pm and time for homework. The average high school student has 3.5 hours of homework per night. Nate is no different.
At 10:30 pm, homework done, Nate is finally able to text his girlfriend, which he will do for about one hour (or at least, that is how time he will admit to!)
Nate’s home is one where phones are permitted in the bedroom. Both Nate, his brother, and his mother, all keep their phones by the bedside. Here’s a possible area where I can intervene. Technology in the bedroom is associated with reduced sleep and increased daytime sleepiness in teens.
By my calculation, the maximum amount of sleep Nate would get in a typical night would be 8 hours, 1 1/2 hours less than the recommended amount. My suspicion is that the real number is probably closer to 7 1/2, given that Nate likes to watch YouTube videos and spends a fair amount of time on Facebook.
By the weekend, Nate has accumulated a sleep debt. Naturally, if he does not need to wake up for school, he will stay in bed. It is not unusual for Nate to wake up between 11:30 am and noon.
How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get? The Fix
I had a number of suggestions for Nate.
For the average sleepy teenager, there are factors that cannot be changed, and a few that can. The start time for school should be later, but for now, 8:30 am remains too early for the average teen.
Sports are important to Nate, and I certainly would not recommend that he cut out track from his life. I have clients who play sports and participate in other after school activities as well. In these cases I recommend cutting out some activities. I call this “simplifying” the life of the teenager. Simplification is sometimes easier said than done.
Do homework during school hours
I asked Nate if he had a free block, formerly known as “study hall”. When I was in high school, very little studying got done in study hall. These days, over-scheduled students are taking advantage of study hall to get their homework done. It’s not possible for Nate to do all 3.5 hours of his homework during the 50 minute block, but it’s better than nothing. Nate admitted that it would be painful, but he could do the writing-intensive part of his homework during free block.
Bedrooms are for beds, not for phones
I also suggested that Nate’s family make a rule about technology in bedrooms. No intervention like this will work unless everyone else in the home is on board as well. There were no televisions in the bedrooms. This alone was a terrific start. The next step was to get everyone to agree to leave their devices in the kitchen, plugged in.
I left it to Nate and his mother to negotiate the time for plugging in the phone. I was a high school boy once. I know what this is like. I didn’t speak to my girlfriend nearly as often as kids these days do (I had to share the one land line we had with three sisters and my parents). But I probably would be texting her if I had a smart phone back then.
Get Back to Basics
It never hurts to make sure that you are eating well and getting plenty of exercise. By eating well, I mean something fairly specific:
- Meat and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Some fruit
- Starches rarely
- Sugar NEVER
Easier said than done, right? A growing body of evidence is supporting these basic guidelines.
Nate has already gotten the vigorous exercise part covered. If your child is not doing any exercise, I recommend they get out and move. It doesn’t really matter what they do as long as they do something regularly.
Now that you know how many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get, the last piece is convincing the school system. Later start times have been shown to show benefits and few down sides. If an effort to start school later is not underway in your district, I recommend getting one started!
And if you need a sleep coach, I can help!