Why sleep is important
It’s essential for your child to get enough sleep. Your child also needs good-quality sleep.
Sleep is important for:
- maintaining a healthy body
- ‘cleaning up’ the brain
- helping the immune system
- improving energy levels, learning and concentration.
Lack of sleep can have a negative effect on behaviour, emotions, attention, social relationships and school performance.
Sleep needs for children 12-15 years
It’s thought that teenagers need an average of 9¼ hours of sleep each night to function at their best. This means they still need more sleep than an adult to be sufficiently alert during the day. And it’s not just about the quantity. It’s also about the quality, and how much deep sleep your child gets.
During puberty, children start to secrete melatonin later at night than they did in earlier childhood. This affects their circadian rhythm. It means that your child will want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning. Also, as their brains mature during puberty, children are able to stay awake for longer.
You can read more about sleep cycles for children and grown-ups in our article About sleep.
Signs of sleep problems
A change in your child’s sleeping behaviour – such as going to bed later than you’d like – isn’t necessarily a sleep problem. But your child could have sleep problems or be suffering from a lack of sleep if she:
- lacks energy or constantly feels tired
- takes a long time to get to sleep
- repeatedly wakes throughout the night and doesn’t go back to sleep
- struggles to wake or refuses to get out of bed in the morning
- naps for long periods during the day or falls asleep at school
- struggles to concentrate or remember information
- has very irregular sleep patterns from day to day
- sleepwalks or gets up and eats during the night while asleep
- has frequent nightmares or sleep terrors.
These might be signs of a diagnosable sleeping disorder. But it’s much more likely that it’s a temporary problem that can be helped with some simple lifestyle changes.
Seek advice from a health professional if you’re concerned that problems with sleep, however mild, are affecting your child’s wellbeing, schoolwork or relationships. Also seek help if the problems are making your child anxious, or if they persist for more than 2-4 weeks.
Lifestyle changes to promote better sleep
Adolescent sleep issues are often linked to what your child does during the day, not just at night. You can promote better sleep and address some sleep problems by looking at your child’s daytime behaviour. In particular, your child needs to eat regular, healthy meals, enjoy positive social relationships, and get regular physical activity.
Here are more ideas to improve the amount and quality of your child’s sleep.
- Encourage your child to go to bed and get up around the same time every day. Keep wake-up times on school days and weekends to within two hours of each other. This can help get your child’s body clock into a regular rhythm.
- Be sure to allow plenty of time (for example, 40 minutes) for your child to do wind-down activities before bed. This way, he’ll be ready to catch a ‘wave’ of sleepiness when it comes. Good wind-down activities might be warm baths, warm milk drinks, writing in a journal, reading a book or magazine, or listening to quiet music.
- If your child has a busy morning routine, encourage her to use some wind-down time at night to complete morning tasks, such as getting clothes ready for the next day, making lunch or getting her school bag ready.
- If your child naps during the day, make sure the nap is in the early afternoon. Keep it to no more 20 minutes. Daytime naps longer than 20 minutes can make it more difficult to get to sleep at night, to get into the deep sleep you need at night, and to wake up in the morning.
Your child’s sleep environment
- Turn off electronic stimulation in your child’s bedroom at least one hour before bedtime. This includes loud music, mobile phones, computer screens and TV. Switching off mobiles can be hard for young people, but late-night phone calls and text messages can mean broken sleep. Encourage your child to connect with friends during the day instead.
- Change your child’s sleep space if necessary. A dark, quiet, private space is important for good sleep. Talk with your child about how her bedroom is affecting her sleep.
- Ensure your child feels safe at night. Praise and reward any signs of bravery if your child is fearful. Avoid scary TV shows, movies, computer games or books. Some children with major bedtime fears have been helped by having a night light or a personal alarm under their pillow.
- If your child is ‘clock watching’, encourage him to turn his clock around or move it to where he can’t see it.
- If your child can’t get to sleep straight away, she could try getting up and doing something relaxing like reading under dim light. When she feels tired, she can go back to bed. In the mornings, she should get out of bed when she wakes up, rather than trying to go back to sleep.
Good health and nutrition
- Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can cause people to feel more alert or uncomfortable. This can make it harder to get to sleep.
- Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. This will help his body produce melatonin at the right times in his sleep cycle. A healthy breakfast also helps to kick-start the body clock.
- Encourage your child to avoid caffeine (in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola) – especially in the late afternoon and evening.
- Physical activity has been shown to increase the total sleep time of children during adolescence. It’s not a good idea to play sport or be active late at night, though. The stimulation and increase in body temperature can make it harder to get to sleep.
Alcohol and illegal drug use
should be entirely avoided by young people of this age. These substances have a bad impact on sleep, and they can also harm young people’s developing brains.
If worries and anxieties affect your child’s sleep, you could work on the problem together during the day. Your child could also try writing anxious thoughts in a journal.
It’s always a good idea to praise your child when you notice she’s trying to make changes to sleep patterns or is trying out strategies you’ve discussed.
Sleep problems don’t have a quick fix. Your child will probably need to try new lifestyle and sleep patterns for many weeks until you see a real difference.
Working with your child on sleep problems
Your child needs to be involved in solving his own sleep issues. His input into strategies he thinks will work for him is really important.
To find out more about what’s causing your child’s sleep problems, try asking questions such as:
- Does it take you a long time to get to sleep?
- What makes it harder for you to get to sleep?
- What are some things you think could help you get more sleep?
Your child takes new thoughts, stresses and worries with her to bed each night. Think about your child’s sleep in the context of everything else that’s going on – school pressures, friendships and new responsibilities.
You can also act as a healthy sleep role model for your child – for example, by winding down before bed, relaxing and managing stress, and reducing your use of stimulants such as caffeine before bedtime.
Note: there are lots of over-the-counter remedies for sleep. They shouldn’t be used in the long term. It’s always best to seek professional medical advice about your child’s individual sleeping behaviour, and using and managing herbal remedies.
If the strategies above haven’t helped and you’re concerned about your child’s sleep, see a GP, school counsellor or psychologist. If necessary, these professionals can refer you to a specialist who can assess your child and tailor strategies to your child’s needs.
Sleep and your child’s mental health and wellbeing
Your child needs plenty of good-quality sleep for good mental health and wellbeing.
Mental health and sleep are closely connected. Being tired all the time can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But a mental illness such as depression might also lead to sleeping problems.
Young people with depression often have difficulty falling asleep, have trouble getting up, feel very tired during the day, or sleep in very late in the day. But many healthy young people also have these issues.
Sleep problems can be a sign of mental health problems. If your child has shown these signs for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to talk to him about your concerns. Also seek professional advice from a GP or school counsellor.
A recent study of over 15 000 students found that those who went to bed after midnight had a 24% higher risk of depression, compared to those who went to bed before 10 pm. The study also found that adolescents who slept five hours or fewer were 71% more likely to suffer depression.
There are many books available that offer solutions for sleep problems during childhood. One that you might find useful is:
- Owens, J.A., & Mendell, J.A. (2005). Take charge of your child’s sleep: The all-in-one resource for solving sleep problems in kids and teens. NY: Marlow.