Teens Don’t Sleep Enough. It’s YOUR FAULT

We all know that teens don’t sleep enough. Why don’t they?

Parents, you aren’t going to like the reason: it’s your fault.


Why Teens Don’t Sleep Enough


The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) performs an annual poll to learn more about the way Americans sleep. In 2014, the poll focused on parental attitudes toward their children’s sleep. In particular NSF asked parents how much they valued sleep and how much sleep they believe their children actually got.

Then NSF asked a series of questions about household rules regarding sleep, including questions about limits setting on caffeine and use of technology in the bedroom.

Parents were asked to fill out a survey on the internet. Questions were asked about demographics (age, socioeconomic status, etc), followed by questions about sleep.

The Results

Most parents (>90%) reported that sleep was either “very important” or “extremely important” for good mood, health, and performance in both themselves and their children.

teens don't sleep enough
Teens don’t sleep enough and neither do their younger sibs

However, almost 90% children did not in fact sleep the recommended number of hours, whether they were younger children or adolescents. The children in the study reportedly sleep fewer hours than children in other comparable developed countries.

Children 6-11 years of age ideally should get about 10 hours sleep. Teenagers should get 9 1/2 hours. In the NSF study, both groups got about one full hour less sleep than recommended.

Adolescents (12-17 years old) slept fewer hours than their younger siblings during the week. However, on weekends, both groups slept the same number of hours.

The survey was concerned not only with quantity of sleep, but also with quality. Slightly less than half of parents thought the quality of their children’s sleep was “excellent” or “good”.

Limits Setting and Enforcement

The survey was particularly interested in rules setting and enforcement, and the effect of rules on sleep. The results were significant.

Long hours of sleep were significantly associated with parents being married, always enforcing rules about how late the child can consume caffeine, and never leaving any technology on in the bedroom. Excellent sleep quality was significantly associated with always enforcing a bedtime for the child and with never leaving any technology on in the bedroom.

Not surprisingly, if parents slept with electronic devices, so did their children. Many parents admitted on the survey that they would read and respond to text messages after they had planned to go to sleep!

“Technology” was defined as virtually any electronic device with a screen, including television. In the age of the cell phone, the television continues to be the biggest contributor to loss of sleep.

TV is a Bad Actor

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Teens don’t sleep enough if they watch the big flat screen before bed

The study did try to explain why television appears to be worse than cell phones for inhibiting sleep. We can make some guesses, however.

It is well known that the blue light emitted from screens is bad for sleep. Exposure to this light tends to delay the sleep cycle and to increase the amount of time it takes to fall asleep (“sleep latency”). Television screens are larger than cell phones or tablets. In fact, on average television screens are larger than they have ever been! It’s possible that the larger the screen, the larger the amount of blue light. As a result, sleep is even more inhibited.


Like it or not, parents are role models for their children. It’s not reasonable to hold your kids to a standard that you yourself cannot keep up. If you have a television in your bedroom, how can you deny one to your child? If you sleep with your cell phone or tablet on your end table, your child is going to find out.

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Teens don’t sleep enough after an espresso

The parents who sleep the best, and who have children who sleep the best, make rules about technology use, enforce those rules, and observe the rules themselves!


Removing technology from the bedroom is easy, or should be. More difficult is modeling behavior for your children around healthy bed times. The NSF study showed that parents who get enough sleep quantity and quality have children who also sleep long and well.

Caffeine use is an important contributor to sleep hygiene, but it’s not often discussed. This study does us a favor by raising the issue of caffeine consumption in both parents and children.

As an admitted caffeine addict, I appreciate that the issue is being raised and I’m grateful to the NSF for bringing it up. I’m also grateful that my children have not inherited my addiction. But perhaps we’re not merely lucky. We make a conscious effort to model healthy eating and drinking behavior for our children. The same goes for exercise.

My own parents were heroic coffee drinkers and neither lifted a finger of exercise. How my sisters and I ever became health nuts will remain a mystery. Perhaps our parents modeled better behavior than I give them credit for.

Most children today are not so lucky. Parental modeling of behavior matters.

When I counsel a family about a sleep problem, I’m really counseling the entire family. To me the expression “sleep hygiene” refers to the sleep habits of the entire family, not just a child’s.

The truth is, fixing a child’s sleep problem often means fixing the entire family’s sleep problem. If you want to find out more, feel free to contact me. I can help.

Sleep Deprivation With a Baby

Sleep deprivation after the baby comes home is no joke. You may think the all-nighters you pulled in college were a piece of cake. Maybe you thought the “tiny bladder syndrome” you had when you were pregnant would prepare you for loss of sleep after the baby came home. I’m here to tell you that nothing can prepare you for this kind of sleep deprivation. Real postpartum sleep deprivation can harm your health and your relationships, not just with your significant other, but also with your baby.

The Toll Sleep Deprivation Takes

Just because you’ve brought a baby home doesn’t mean you need less sleep! To the contrary, you need all the sleep you can get. Yet one study showed that mothers get an average of 1.5 fewer hours of sleep per day in the first week after giving birth. And the quality of that sleep wasn’t very good, meaning it was fragmented into smaller parts. This happens with newborns, who sleep short intervals.

Most of the research we have was done on generally young, healthy volunteers who knew that they could drop out of the study if the stress became too much for them. So research probably does not tell us the full story of what happens to parents when they come home from the hospital. Real mothers and fathers do not have that luxury. In addition to being sleep-deprived, they know that they cannot drop out of the study at any time.

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Weight of the World?

The good news is that we do not see any increase in child abuse that occurs because of sleep deprivation. Although we have read warnings about it on the internet. However, it does appear that new moms with sleep problems may be more susceptible to postpartum depression.

Postpartum Brain

It’s clear that lack of sleep makes it harder to think. Working memory, flexibility, even reaction time are diminished when you haven’t slept. The risks can be substantial if you get in a car and try to drive, with or without the baby! Between 15-33% of fatal car accidents are caused by driver drowsiness.


And many studies have shown that your satisfaction with your partner can be damaged in the first year of a baby’s life, possibly related to other stresses in addition to lack of sleep. But lack of sleep certainly does not help. It’s clear that sleep-deprived people are grumpier, less patient and more argumentative.

So What’s a Sleep-Deprived Parent to Do?


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Don’t be that guy

There are many things you can do. Here’s a list of some of the better ideas I’ve come across.

  • Sleep When You Can: This means sleep when the baby is sleeping. Sure there are other things to do: bathe and wash clothes, etc. But some of these things you can do while baby is awake. Baby sleep time is the best time for you to sleep as well. This goes for night-time bedtime as well!
  • Exercise: This is one of the three legs on which all of health stands. It’s best to get some vigorous exercise in the morning or the afternoon. Night time would not be ideal, as it may wire you up too much and make it difficult for you to sleep.
  • Eat Well: Meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, rare grains, no sugar. Diet matters. You’ll feel better and you’ll sleep better.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine: Especially after lunch time. These substances are not the friend of sleep.
  • Avoid screen time at night: The blue light from screens inhibits melatonin, the “sleepy hormone”. We tell teenagers this all the time. It goes double for sleep-deprived parents!
  • Get help: Yes, you can do this alone. But if you can get someone to help you do things around the house, including taking care of the baby, by all means do it. And take a nap when you are being helped, for the love of Pete!
  • Remember perfection is unattainable: Stop trying to do it all and cut yourself some slack. Learn to prioritize. Sometimes you have to wear the same pair of panties two days in a row and eat leftovers.  The world will keep turning.



Overstimulation: It’s Keeping Your Toddler Awake

To explain what overstimulation is, and what it has to do with sleep, I have to tell a joke:

This economist, Dr. Schwartz, sits down in his local diner, as he does every weekday morning. Millie, who has worked at the diner as long as anyone can remember (and has a pencil permanently embedded behind her left ear) approaches with a pot of hot coffee.

“So, Dr. Schwartz,” Millie asks “How’s your wife?”

Schwartz is an economist, so he answers as only an economist would:

“How’s my wife?” He shrugs, “Compared to what?”

What Do You Mean By “Overstimulation”?

The joke reminds me that “overstimulation” assumes that we know what a normal amount of stimulation is! Over-stimulated compared to what?

One expert defines “overstimulation” as more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than [the child] can cope with. This means there are two sides to the overstimulation problem. There’s the stimulus, and there’s the child. Depending on the child’s temperament, she may handle lots of stimulation without a problem, or she may easily melt down.


The “Filter Function” and the “Tilt Switch”

Your child’s temperament might depend in part on her ability to filter out sensory information. Newborns have a neat way of dealing with this. As I’ve explained elsewhere:

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The reason you are able to read this is that you are able to filter out most of the sensory inputs that are coming your way. You don’t pay attention to the lights in the room or to extraneous sounds coming from outside. You probably are also filtering out the scents around you and the taste in your mouth.

Now imagine that you are forced to pay attention to all these sensations equally. If you were, you’d be incapacitated. You’d be forced to stop everything and go lie in bed. This is what the world is like for a newborn. Fortunately, newborns are lying down already. This is why most babies prefer low-sensory environments. They do well in places where there isn’t too much light, noise, and temperature fluctuation. They tend to prefer dim lighting, near silence, and contact with warm human bodies. We can tell that babies prefer these conditions and do well in them because they eat and sleep better than in noisy, light, cold, and hot environments.

Switch Failure

Because babies are unable to filter out sensory stimulation, they’ve developed a way to protect themselves from overstimulation. I call it the “tilt” function. In the era of desktop-based and hand-held gaming, fewer and fewer people remember old-school arcade pinball machines, complete with silver-ball plunger, electronic bumpers, and flashing lights. Classic pinball machines all came equipped with a “tilt” switch, which prevented you from cheating by jiggling the machine to make the ball go where you wanted. If you jiggled the machine, a “tilt” light came on, the machine went to sleep, and you lost the ball…

Parents often find out just how overstimulated their baby is when she becomes incredibly fussy later— after the sensory overload— when she has difficulty going to sleep or even feeding”.

Loss of the Tilt Switch

By toddler-hood, most children acquire pretty good sensory filters, but they lose the tilt switch. This means they can no longer “shut it down” when too much stimulation comes their way.

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Over the top

How much is too much stimulation depends not only on the child’s filter, but also on the child’s sensitivity to any stimulation.

It’s interesting to note that some adult conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, might really be disorders of filter function. Patients suffering from these disorders list sensory overload and physical activity among the most common triggers of their symptoms.

Obvious Sources of Overstimulation

Parents can usually tell when a day is going to be stimulating for a toddler. There’s a special occasion like a birthday party; or you take a long day trip to a zoo; or you have a particularly crazy day where you’ve raced from one activity to another. Fireworks displays are other obvious sources of overstimulation: they’re bright and loud! It might also seem obvious that the child can be overstimulated by being frightened by something she sees in a video or on TV.

Not-So-Obvious Sources of Overstimulation

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umm… bedtime

Some children, especially sensitive types, may be overstimulated when they meet new people, or do an activity that they do not usually do. You may not discover that the child has been overstimulated until bedtime, when she may be unusually cranky or fussy.

Book-reading time may be a source of unexpected overstimulation. You probably already avoid scary or overly exciting stories before bedtime. But did you know that funny books can be overstimulated? Just try falling asleep when you’ve got a case of the giggles.

TV and Screens

For some families, video-watching is part of the bedtime routine. Even if the toddler is watching calm, soothing stories, she may be getting too much stimulation from the screen. This is because the blue light emitted from most screens inhibits her brain from sending out melatonin, the signal for the rest of her brain to shut down and go to sleep. The same goes for hand-held devices like cell phones. Children love to play games on their parents phones. But the hours before bedtime would not ideal, especially if your child is particularly sensitive to the blue light effect.

How to Prevent and Manage Overstimulation

Some sources of overstimulation cannot be avoided: there’s that birthday party for Grandma that everyone has to go to, etc. If you know ahead of time that a day is going to be busy or hectic, or if the child is sensitive to meeting new people or new activities, I recommend breaking the day up into chunks. Between each chunk, try to give the child some down-time.  This is a period, an hour or so, of quiet and relative absence of activity. If the sound and sights and other sensations cannot be avoided, try to sit with the child and do a quiet activity. This can help “turn down the volume” on the stimulation she is receiving.

When she is older, she may learn to self-select what activities she does, avoiding the overstimulating ones. She may buy clothes that don’t irritate her. She may avoid large crowds, or jobs that involve constant contact with other people. In other words, she’ll find a way to get through life happy and well-adjusted. But during childhood, she’s largely at the mercy of her caregivers. If you aren’t sensitive to her sensitivities, you may be exposing her to more stimulation than she can cope with.

Pay attention! Follow her cues.



Baby Jet Lag: How to Beat It

Several of my clients boldly take their babies on truly long trips – I mean several time zones! I’ve known families to fly with their little children to India, the Far East, and Africa. From these families I’ve learned the best tips I can find to overcome baby jet lag.

What’s baby jet lag?

It’s just like adult jet lag, only your little one sleeps more than you do, so it probably won’t be as tough on them as it is on you. The local clock says it’s 9 in the morning, but you feel like it’s time to go to bed! Same with the little one. There is simply no way to avoid it. Baby jet lag will probably last a minimum of 3 days, up to 14 days depending on how many time zones you cross. But there are ways you can reduce the shock to the system.

Flashpackerfamily.com has some great tips on managing jet lag for the little ones. One of the best ones is choosing a night flight. It turns out that if you choose a flight time when everyone will be sleeping (make that should be sleeping!)



Night and Day

baby jet lag
Tel Aviv – Jaffa

Most experts agree that the best way to adjust to a new time zone is to allow our own eyes to train our brains to adjust our circadian rhythm. Simply put: let daytime be light and let night time be dark. Our eyes train our brains to secrete melatonin at night so we’ll tend to get sleepy when it gets dark.

This is one of those occasions when I recommend breaking my rule about letting a sleepy child sleep. For the sake of making most of the trip/vacation more pleasant, it may be necessary to wake her up in the local time morning. Then it’s a good idea to take the child out during day time and encourage her to stay awake.

The opposite goes for night time.  Though she may be wide awake and wanting to play, I recommend keeping her room dark, quiet, and relatively free of activity. This is that poor sleep-substitute that I call “downtime”.  It’s better than nothing.

As for naps, to the greatest extent possible, try to time these according to local time.  And good luck.


Most seasoned travelers including deliciousbaby.com recommend meal times at local times. That means, if it’s time to eat breakfast in Tokyo, eat breakfast. In a perfect world, you would start doing this on the plane, but the reality is that you eat when they feed you. Of course, you’ve brought plenty of healthy snacks with you, right?

baby jet lag

Speaking of healthy snacks, when you and your child are up in the wee hours of the morning because you haven’t adjusted your circadian rhythms yet, someone’s liable to get hungry.  I’d keep it healthy and proteinaceous. Sugar not so much. It’ll help. I promise.


Nothing wears the crew out more effectively than lots of physical exertion.  This is not always the easiest thing to do depending on your location. It may come down to going outside and walking (temperature and weather permitting). Along with meals at the usual times and sleep at local time, this is the best way to restore some normalcy.

Finally, remember you’re going to have to do all of this in reverse when you return!