Back to School, Back to Sleep

Back to School, Back to Sleep

It’s September and you know what that means: pumpkin spice lattes are back! Sure, but it’s also time for young folks to head back to class. Whether you’ve got teens going into high school or young adults starting their first semester of post-secondary education, the transition from summertime funtime to academic schedules can be a bit rocky, especially when it comes to sleep. Getting up in time to catch the bus or the opening remarks at an early lecture can feel like an impossibility. Likewise, falling asleep at a “reasonable hour” is equally tough. What can you do to help the young people in your family get the rest they need so they can learn and grow into adulthood? Let’s take a look.

Sleep Challenges for Young People

As an adult who is used to crashing early and getting up at the crack of dawn after around seven hours of sleep, it’s easy to wonder why teens and young adults have so much trouble staying awake in class. But the truth is, their sleep needs differ from those of full-fledged grownups. Biologically, most young people need between eight and ten hours of sleep, yet most only get around seven. That’s a big problem for major classroom considerations like attention span, memory, enthusiasm, mood, and concentration. Outside the classroom, young people who don’t sleep well or enough may experience increased risk-taking behaviours, depression, and accidental injuries.

Why is sleeping more so hard for teens? The teenage years see a hormonal shift in most people that results in feeling tired later in the evening. This makes it hard to fall asleep as early as they are used to. But school schedules don’t account for this shift, keeping the first class of the day around 8:30 a.m. at most institutions. Adding screen time and homework into the equation only worsens the situation, as melatonin release in the brain is delayed, making it even harder to drift off to dreamland. And since school starts in September as the days become noticeably shorter, getting up when it is still dark out is its own challenge, leaving teens and young adults feeling lethargic and even depressed—not exactly the best start to the day.

Aside from the biological consequences, sleep difficulties can also cause conflict with parents, who may perceive their young adults as being lazy or sullen. But remember, there are valid biological reasons that you have to blare your trombone in order to get your kids out of bed in the morning.

What You Can Do

Before you go too far down this road, it’s important to remember that the young people in your home are sentient beings and will make their own decisions. But there are some things you can do to help them understand their sleep needs and the consequences of staying up all night watching TikTok videos.

The number one best thing you can do is be understanding when your young people are having a hard time falling asleep or getting up in the morning. Allow them to sleep as late as their schedule allows and don’t try to force them into an early bedtime—going to sleep before a person feels tired can lead to sleepless nights. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to account for recovery sleep in your weekend plans; early Saturday breakfasts can wait.

Next, have a conversation with teens and young adults about their evolving sleep requirements. Be sure that they understand the ramifications of not getting enough sleep and the impact it could have on their physical and mental health and education. In particular for those entering post-secondary institutions, it can be helpful to select classes that don’t start early in the morning for at least the first two semesters, until they have a chance to adjust to the collegiate lifestyle.

For teens still living at home, work with them to determine a balance between school, extracurriculars, and free time, specifically limiting late night or early morning scheduled activities. For kids with unavoidable morning activities, like hockey practice, it may be helpful to create a sleep routine that helps them fall asleep earlier.

Incentivize!

If you really want to ensure the young folks in your family get a great sleep, it’s also a great idea to provide them with enhanced comfort in their bedrooms to entice them to hit the sheets earlier. Blackout curtains are a great choice, especially if you live in a city with a lot of light pollution. If your home is subject to street traffic, crying babies, or other types of nighttime sounds, a white noise generator is a thoughtful option. And consider making a gift of extra comfy bedding. A body pillow is a great way to promote restful, aligned sleep, and a weighted blanket is perfect for particularly restless nights.

If you’re sending your young adult off to dorms at a college or university, they’re surely in for an excellent education but will likely have to deal with a subpar mattress (when I was in school the beds were all covered in plastic—horrible!) But they don’t have to live with it as is. A wool or latex mattress topper can take the crinkles and lumps out of an old mattress and give it new life, and they come in twin/single sizes, which is ideal for most dorm rooms. Combine that with a good quality pillow, sheet set, and comforter and you’ll have the best rested student on campus.

Above all, try to think back to when you were young and wanted to sleep until lunchtime. It felt great then because it was what your body needed to cope with all the change that young adults experience, both biological and educational. So be kind, be understanding, and keep the trombone in its case.