Why Does My Teen Sleep So Much?

Why does Jackie sleep so much?

As Jackie’s mother was asking the question, I was already suspecting that Jackie actually didn’t sleep enough!

They Sleep So Much, and Yet So Little!

Jackie (not her real name) is a pretty typical high-school sophomore. She’s a good student. She plays three sports. When I met her she was running track in the fall. The problem, Jackie told me, was that she needed to do homework, but she couldn’t keep her eyes open during dinner. She was afraid that her grades were going to suffer if she couldn’t complete her school work.

She would wake up at 6:30 in the morning. Or rather, Jackie’s mother would wake her up at 7. There’s no way Jackie would wake up on her own. On Saturdays and Sundays, the girl would wake up at 10.

The school day would go fine. Jackie didn’t report any sleeping or even drowsiness during the day. Immediately after school she’d go to track practice, four days per week. She’d compete once per week. After track, Jackie would come home, eat dinner and do homework. Most nights Jackie wouldn’t get to bed until after 11 PM.

Lately the fatigue was catching up to Jackie. By dinner time she was wiped out. That’s when they sought my advice.

The Story

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Do I sleep so much?

I took a complete history from Jackie and her mother. She was healthy (no snoring, no asthma), had no emotional or drug problems (that she would admit to). There was no television in her room. The rule in house was that no cell phones or tablets were allowed in the bedroom. Jackie’s parents kept to this rule as well. She had been a good sleeper up to this point. There was no family history of parasomnia.

The answers to these and other questions led me to believe that the reason for Jackie’s sleepiness after school was not a result of any health or emotional problem. Jackie would sleep so much after school because she wasn’t sleeping enough at night.

Teens Don’t Sleep So Much

Teenagers are supposed to get 9 1/2 hours of sleep every night. But on average, teens get 7- 7 1/2 hours. In addition, the teen sleep cycle is delayed compared to their younger peers. The teenage sleep cycle is such that they will tend to want to fall asleep at 11 PM, but they’ll need to wake up at 8:30 AM in order to get their 9 1/2 hours. Jackie was already in school when her brain wanted her to be waking up!

As a result, Jackie was genuinely exhausted by the time track practice was over. Her mother had wondered if Jackie needed to quit track so that she could get her homework done earlier.

Sports are Good for Kids

I explained that the issue was not track, it was the early wake-up time required by Jackie’s school. Jackie was glad to hear this. She really enjoyed track. She enjoyed the competition, and several of her good friends were on the team.

Need a SLEEP COACH?

In fact, vigorous exercise is good for teens (as it is for all of us!) I suspect that if Jackie wasn’t running track she probably would not be doing as well as she was. Teens who participate in sports tend to be more organized than their non-athletic peers, not least because sports schedules force the young person to be more efficient with study and homework.

The Fix for Jackie

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If I’m going to sleep so much, I’m going to do it by the lake

Jackie’s situation is far from unique. High school administrators are well aware of sleep issues among the student body. With so many students involved in after-school activities, the sleep-deprivation problem is made worse. To respond to the problem, many schools have devised an ingenious solution: the study hall.

Study hall of course is an old concept. But these days schools are permitting extra study hall periods dedicated to homework.

There are several advantages to the student who is permitted to get homework done during school hours. Not least, student-athletes like Jackie can return from practice, shower, eat dinner, and go to sleep!

The solution is not ideal, however. The best solution would be to start school later for high schoolers. Such solutions in fact have been tried in several school districts, with positive results.

Jackie’s guidance counselor was enormously helpful. With her help, Jackie was able to schedule two extra study hall periods per week, which were enough to allow Jackie to finish all her homework before track practices and meets.

The take-home lesson for parents is that your teen isn’t sleeping as much as you think. In fact, they probably aren’t sleeping enough. I recommend trying to figure out how much sleep your teen is getting at night. Chances are very good that she is not getting 9 1/2 hours. If daytime sleepiness is becoming a problem, then some kind of intervention would help you.

That’s where I come in. I help parents solve their teenagers’ sleep problems. If you are dealing with a sleepy teenager, who nods out during school, or upon returning home, I can help.

Sleepwalking in Children

True story: When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had a sleepover at the home of my former next-door neighbor. His family had moved far away, to a town I had never even heard of. When my mother dropped me off at my friend’s new home, I found myself out in farm country for the first time, miles from anywhere. My friend had a new Great Dane whose way of playing was to chase you and knock you down. The family was Italian, so dinner was fantastic.. and huge. The only problem was that the family rule was that I had to finish everything on my plate. I ate way more than I wanted to. The next morning, my friend’s mother told me I had wandered all throughout the house and even had a fairly long conversation with her. I had no recollection of any of this. I had been sleepwalking.

What is Sleepwalking?

By definition, a person who walks in her sleep is unconscious. Sleepwalking (also called “sonambulism“) occurs most often 2-4 hours after falling asleep. Children are more prone to it than adults because of the peculiarities of children’s sleep cycles.

Sleep is divided into 5 stages, I-IV, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Stage IV is the deepest level. In children, stage IV sleep is much deeper than in adults. It is almost impossible to rouse a child from stage IV sleep. Normally, a person’s sleep stage rises fairly rapidly from deep sleep to Stage I and REM sleep, the lighter stages. In some children, the rise out of deep sleep is only partial, leaving them in a state that is suspended somewhere between asleep and awake. It is during these “sudden partial awakenings” that sleepwalking occurs.

Parasomnias

Sleepwalking is one of a number of sleep-related behaviors that occurs because of sudden partial awakenings. Sleep-talking, sleep-eating, restless leg syndrome, and night terrors are also in this group. Collectively these behaviors are called “parasomnias“. Literally “things that happen with sleep”. It’s very common for people who sleep walk to engage in these other sleep disturbances as well. Sometimes they continue into adulthood.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

Even though sleepwalking has something to do with children’s sleep cycles, we know that not all children sleepwalk. It happens in somewhere between 1-15% of children. Here are factors make it more common in some children.sleepwalking 3

  • Genetics: A certain amount of sleepwalking (no one knows how much) runs in families. If one or both parents sleepwalked as children, their child is more likely to do it, compared to the general population.
  • Sleep Deprivation: We believe that exhausted children sleep more deeply than they do normally. The deeper you sleep, the more likely you are to have sudden partial awakenings, as opposed to a nice smooth cycle between Stage IV and REM sleep.
  • Chaotic Sleep: Children who don’t have regular sleep and nap hours tend to have disrupted sleep cycles. These kids as well are more likely to sleepwalk.
  • Stress: Like sleeping in unusual environments or overeating. This probably had a lot to do with my sleepwalking adventure at my friend’s house.
  • Illness: Sleepwalking is more common in children who have fevers or who are otherwise ill.
  • Medication: Certain drugs, including sleeping medications (!), are associated with parasomnias like sleepwalking.

Things Typical Sleepwalkers Do

There are some things sleepwalkers do that can help parents figure out what is going on with the child. These behaviors may appear strange, even alarming. But they are quite normal .sleepwalking 4

  • Sleeptalking: As my friend’s mother reported, I had quite a long conversation. But she also told me that I made no sense and did not respond directly. This is pretty typical of sleepwalkers.
  • Sit up and make repeated motions: This type is on the spectrum of sleepwalking. We believe that babies who cannot yet walk may sit up in their sleep. Parents may not even be aware that the baby is doing this. Or if they do observe it, they might not think very much of it.
  • Pee in inappropriate places: Such as shoes or closets. This is probably because of the nature of the confusion that happens during partial awakenings. It’s very important to recognize that sleepwalkers do not do this on purpose!
  • Perform routine behaviors:  such as opening and closing doors.

How to Manage Sleepwalking 

The most important thing to do is to keep the child safe. Most sleepwalking is harmless. However some sleepwalkers will open doors and even try to leave the house. I recommend keeping doors to dangerous areas locked, or install alarms on these doors. You should install (or re-install) gates at the tops of stairs if you have a sleepwalker. Any sharp or breakable objects should be stored safely before bedtime. Some experts even recommend turning down the hot water temperature if possible, to prevent accidental burns. If you encounter your little sleepwalker in the night, gently turn her around and lead her back to bed. I do not recommend trying to wake her up. You probably will not succeed if you try. And if you do succeed, you may frighten or confuse the child.

I and other sleep coaches also recommend avoiding talking about the event in the morning. This is a mistake my friend’s mother made. It can only embarrass the child, or worse, cause her to believe that there is something wrong with her. Suffice it to say is that the event I described at the beginning of this article happened 45 years ago and I still remember it. Please avoid the temptation to tell the child about he sleepwalking!

Can Sleepwalking Be Prevented?

Probably not. Most children grow out of their sleepwalking, but that is small comfort while the child is still doing it! Fortunately, there are some things you can do to reduce the number of episodes.

  • Avoid sleep-deprivation: The better rested the child, the less likely they are to sleepwalk. Moving bedtime earlier works well for some sleepwalkers.
  • Keep to a routine: Consistency, consistency, consistency! The more regular and predictable the child’s day, the less likely they are to disrupt their sleep cycles.
  • Relaxation and Quiet: Make sure the bedtime routine is calm, soothing, and quiet. Some experts recommend installing a white noise machine if the child is easily awakened.
  • Dietary Changes: Avoid caffeine and sugar before bedtime. Also limit the amount of fluids that the sleepwalker drinks. A full bladder tends to stimulate sleepwalking!

If you have any concerns that there may be something else more serious going on with your child, always seek the advice of a pediatrician. If you’ve done that, and you still need help with your sleepwalker, contact me. I’d be glad to help you!