How Many Hours of Sleep Should a 17-year Old Get?

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.

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How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get? Risk-taking requires rest!

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.

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How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get? This kid may need a lot!

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.

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How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get? Girlfriend time is tough to negotiate

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:How many hours of sleep should a 17-year old get 5

  • 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!

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.

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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.

Conclusions

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.

Cell Phones Cause Sleep Problems in Teens

Every year since 2002, the National Sleep Foundation conducts a “Sleep in America” poll. The topics vary every year. In 2011, NSF focused exclusively on the things we do in our bedrooms (you know, besides sleep).  Data from that poll continue to generate insights into how we sleep, or don’t sleep as the case may be. In 2016, investigators pulled data from the “Bedroom Poll”, looking at adolescent technology use and how it affected their sleep. The result? Cell phones cause sleep problems.

The Study

This study looked at data from 259 kids aged 13-21 years. Investigators asked the teens when they went to bed and how long they slept. They were particularly interested in the kids’ own assessment of how tired they were during the day, and whether they believed they were getting “adequate” amounts of sleep at night. Finally, all these data were compared to the amount of time the teens spent doing things on their phones.

cell phones cause sleep problems 1

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The Results

The respondents slept an average of 7.3 ± 1.3 hours. The recommended amount of sleep, according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is 9 1/2 hours.

An astoundingly large number of respondents (97%) used some kind of technology before bed. Increased technology use and the frequency of the cell phone waking you up correlated with waking too early, waking unrefreshed, and daytime sleepiness. Teens who said their sleep was “inadequate” had shorter sleep duration, greater  technology use before bedtime, feeling unrefreshed on waking, and greater daytime sleepiness than teens reporting “adequate” sleep.

The Conclusion: Cell phones cause sleep problems for teens

I can hear parents of of teenagers reading this thinking to themselves “tell me something I don’t know!” But scientific studies like these, even though they rely on survey data, are important because they give us an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

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Cell phones cause sleep problems? Or sleep problems cause cell phone use?

In this survey, the average teenager got 2 hours less sleep than the recommended 9 1/2 hours. I told my own teenagers about this result and they it surprised them. They guessed the reported number of hours would be less than 7 hours. I reminded them that this was the number the kids reported to adults administering a survey. The real number of hours of sleep may in fact be lower.

Which came first?

Another problem with the study is that it only describes the kids report. The study shows a correlation between cell phone use and bad sleep. It doesn’t tell us anything about causation. In other words, do cell phones cause sleep problems? Or do sleep problems cause kids to stay up and use their phones?

To answer questions like this, we need to perform a controlled trial. We would take this same group of kids and randomly divide them into two groups. One group would keep their cell phones in their bedrooms as they usually do. The other group would leave the phone in another room. At the end of some period of time, say 3 months, we’d ask the kids again about quantity and quality of their sleep.

How do you think a study like this would turn out?

Kleine-Levin Syndrome: A Reduced Understanding

In 1925, Frankfurt Neurologist Willi Kleine published a paper he titled “Periodische Schlafsucht” (periodic sleepiness). In his paper, Kleine described 5 patients who mysteriously slept for abnormally long periods. Neither Kleine nor his colleagues could explain the cause of the sleepiness. Four years later, New York psychiatrist Max Levin, studying narcolepsy, came across a young man who both slept and ate too much. He collected five more such cases, one of whom happened to be one of Kleine’s patients. Dr.  Macdonald Critchley described the strange condition in even more detail, and named it Kleine-Levin Syndrome.

Understanding Kleine-Levin Syndrome

In the days before the internet, doctors spent a lot of time in libraries. They scanned thousands of pages of old medical journals, often written in languages they did not speak. One such search turned up a case of a teenage girl who appeared to have Kleine-Levin Syndrome. This occurred in France in the late 18th century:

‘In her fourteenth year, she was overcome with a lethargic sleep which lasted several days; and it was so profound that she was believed dead. From that point forward, the affection of sleep recurred at irregular intervals; it usually lasted eight to ten days, continuing at times for fifteen; and upon one sole occasion, it persisted into the seventeenth day … During the first four years of her disease, this poor girl had appetites as bizarre as they were dangerous, causing her to eat lime, plaster, soil, and vinegar. Thereafter, these appetites subsided, and she nourished herself indiscriminately with all sorts of aliment, excepting bread, for which she maintained an insuperable loathing till she was perfectly cured. This food always occasioned vomiting.’

Later…

Over time, investigators gathered more cases. They were then able to sketch the strange disease in more detail.

  • Over 70% of the victims were teenage boys.
  • Patients would sleep up to 22 hours per day.
  • Episodes of sleepiness would last about 10 days, and would recur every 3-4 months.
  • Odd compulsive eating behaviors are common, as is bizarre sexual behavior.
  • The illness would last about 8 years and then vanish as mysteriously as it appeared.
  • Over half the cases follow a viral infection
kleine-levin syndrome 3
Nice Fairy Tale. Scary Disease

In the 20th century, though most of the sufferers of Kleine-Levin Syndrome were adolescent boys, the disease began to be called “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome”. The real illness has nothing of a fairy tale quality to it, however.


The Kleine-Levin Syndrome Foundation gives an unusual description of the effect the disease has on the minds of its victims. In addition to the sleepiness and excessive hunger, KLSF describes sufferers as having “a reduced understanding of the world.”

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A Reduced Understanding of the World

It’s a description that’s both frightening and arresting. What does KLSF mean by “a reduced understanding of the world”?

During episodes, these young people display confusion and apathy. They appear withdrawn (in the few hours per day they were awake). Then there is the bizarre hunger and hyper-sexuality.

All we can say about the cause of Kleine-Levin Syndrome is that it appears to be a brain disease. It may have a viral trigger. KLS may represent an autoimmune disease. Because it is so rare (1 case per 1 million population), KLS is difficult to study.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for KLS. The best doctors and the victim’s family can do is support them. There is some suggestion that the drug Lithium can reduce the number of episodes. With time, the symptoms disappear and the young person resumes his life. He’s lost a huge chunk of his young life, but he emerges without apparent long-term consequences.kleine-levin syndrome 2

As frightening and as devastating as KLS is for the sufferer and his family, the disease resolves and never comes back. This is an important difference between KLS and Narcolepsy, which can last a lifetime.

 

How Puberty Affects Sleep

The changes that happen during puberty go way beyond the bodily transformations we all know about. The adolescent brain changes too. And brain changes relate to sleep changes. How puberty affects sleep has little to do with how late the teenager stays up. It has more to do with changes that are happening in her brain.

How Puberty Affects Sleep is Deeper Than Skin

No, teens are not moodier because they are not sleeping well. And they’re not sleeping more because they are moody. The moodiness and the changes in sleep are separate by-products of puberty. The sleepiness, however, is made worse by the unfortunate timing of school hours, a subject we will get to.

We many not remember our own sleep patterns during our teen years. But we probably started going to bed later and wake up later as well. Those of us who have teenagers, or who know one well, may have noticed this. It seems fairly universal.

We may have also noticed that the teen may be very unhappy indeed about having to wake up early for school. Many teens report being wiped out after school, especially if they play sports. It’s tempting to blame the teenager for staying up to late and causing her own sleepiness. But if you yield to that temptation you are only half-right: part of the staying up late is cultural. But part of it is biological.

Nature and Nurture

For a long time, the question simply had not been studied. Teenagers tended to stay up later. We assumed we did this because, well, they are teenagers. But since the 1990’s there have been a number of studies of how puberty affects sleep in large groups of teenagers.

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How puberty affects sleep?

For example, Mary Carskadon and her colleagues at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA, did a study of fourth to sixth graders in public school and came up with some interesting findings. They found that later bedtimes and pubertal stage were closely related to one another. In other words, as the children went through puberty, they simply went to bed later, even after controlling for age, birth order, and other factors.

Laberge, et al, in a study of Quebecois teenagers, also found that adolescents were going to bed later. The investigators also found that these kids were sleeping less, most likely because of having to wake up for school. In fact the study showed that teenagers “slept in” on weekends when there was no school. “You need a study to tell me my kids sleeps late on Saturday morning?” you may ask. Sometimes you do.

Israeli Teens Do it Too

A two-year study out of Tel Aviv followed kids as they passed through puberty and measured their sleep. They found that teen sleep-wake patterns reorganize during puberty. Just as with the Rhode Island and Quebec study, the Israeli study showed later bedtimes, less overall sleep, and increased daytime sleepiness. Investigators also looked at tolerance for sleep deprivation and found that the teenagers actually tolerate the loss of sleep better than younger children do.

Here we have three studies from different parts of the world which come up with remarkably similar results. Is there something to this relationship between puberty and sleep?

What if It’s True?

If these studies reflect real changes in the sleep-wake patterns of teenagers, so what? Is it only an interesting discovery that teaches us something about puberty we didn’t know before?how puberty affects sleep 3

No. It’s it’s not just interesting, it’s important. Later sleep times in puberty are often a bad fit for the school schedule that we impose on teenagers. Teens already stay up later for a variety of reasons, some of which relate to 21st century culture. Now that we know that the sleep-wake cycle shifts later in the day for teens, we ought to consider how we can better help them get through the day without getting exhausted.

This is where a sleep consultant can help you. If you have a teen and you’re struggling with a sleep problem, I can help. Please feel free to contact me.