The school day can wait; kids need their sleep

Sept. 2, 2014—Pediatricians are now saying what many kids have been saying for years: School starts too early in the morning.

In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is recommending that middle and high schools start classes at 8:30 a.m. or later. The reason: The natural sleep cycle of adolescents and teens makes it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. And when students stay up late—and then have to rise early for school—they’re unlikely to get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep recommended for them each night.

That not only make it difficult to excel in the classroom; it can lead to accidents and a host of serious health problems.

Risks and rewards

The AAP statement is accompanied by a technical report—an update to an earlier report on excessive sleepiness in adolescents published by the organization in 2005. In it, AAP authors summarize the research that’s been done on teens and insufficient sleep, as well as the potential benefits of later school start times.

Among the topics are:

  • Mood disorders and suicide. Studies have shown links between shorter school-night total sleep time and depression. In one study, researchers found that the risk of suicide attempts nearly tripled when young people slept less than eight hours a night.
  • Obesity. Greater calorie consumption was linked to a lack of sleep in some studies. Researchers also suggest that tired teens take in more fat and don’t exercise as much as do rested teens. Evidence also suggests the less one sleeps, the greater the risk of weight gain.
  • Drowsy driving. In one study of high school students, 11 percent admitted to having an automobile crash in which sleepiness was the main cause. In a separate study, researchers found that delaying school start times lowered the average teen crash rate by 16.5 percent.
  • School performance. When researchers compared school start times for middle school students, they found that students whose days started later reported less daytime sleepiness, less tardiness, fewer attention problems and better school performance when compared to the early-start students.

The report states that school start times are just one factor influencing adolescent and teen sleep. Other things may come into play, too, including after-school activities and jobs, caffeine consumption and the use of electronic media.

You can read the report here.

The take-home message
Your kids may not be getting the sleep they need to function their best and stay healthy. That could be a result of many factors, including early school start times. Getting up early for school can be a problem: When kids enter puberty, they may stay awake up to two hours longer than they did as children and need to stay in bed later to get the sleep they require.

Your kids should keep going to school regardless of the start time, of course. The AAP is urging middle and high schools to switch to later start times and is offering support to school districts considering the change. However, right now only 15 percent of high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

Whether your school district has an early start time or not, you can take steps to help your kids get a better night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests encouraging your child to:

  • Do homework earlier in the day rather than later
  • Avoid caffeinated foods and beverages—chocolate, soda, coffee and tea, for example—late in the day
  • Avoid eating, drinking or exercising within a few hours of bedtime
  • Avoid watching television and using computers or phones within one hour of bedtime
  • Make a ritual of getting ready for bed, including soothing steps such as taking a shower or reading a book, which may train the body to get ready for sleep
  • Establish regular sleep and wake times and stick to them—even on weekends
  • Sleep in a room that is cool, quiet and dark

To find out more about the steps you can take to keep your teen healthy, check out this teen health quiz.


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