While biology and school-opening times are largely out of parental control, Dr. Carskadon offers some suggestions to parents for encouraging their teens to get adequate sleep:
- Establish a bedtime. "A lot of kids don't actually have a bedtime," says Dr. Carskadon. "It amazes me. So arranging their day with a sleep schedule in mind" is key to establishing sleep habits that will last a lifetime.
- Promote a healthy lifestyle. That includes forgoing caffeine after school and making the bedroom conducive to sleep. Televisions, video games, computers and stereos all stimulate youngsters.
- Help your teen with time-management skills. Many teens have poor judgment about how long tasks will take, and end up staying up very late to complete assignments.
- Consider limiting the number of activities they do. "In our laboratory, we have a 12-hour rule," explains Dr. Carskadon. "We don't allow people to come into work within 12 hours of their last shift. We should think of kids as shift workers." Many of them go to school a full day and have part-time jobs or school activities that tie them up until late at night. By limiting activities within 12 hours of the start of school, they would have time to complete schoolwork and get to bed at a reasonable hour.
- Make the bedroom dark at night and bright in the morning. These light cues help the body's internal clock to recognize night and day. Eyeshades might be worth a try at bedtime if the room cannot be darkened sufficiently. Bright light in the morning (open curtains or bright artificial light) even helps push bedtime to an earlier hour.
- An afternoon nap. A nap of an hour or less right after school can help a teen remain alert over the next six to eight hours. Avoid naps later in the day, which can interfere with bedtime.
- Sleep in on the weekend, but not too late. While teens need to replenish their "sleep debt" on the weekend, children who stay up very late and "sleep in" past noon on the weekend have the greatest problems. Dr. Carskadon advises getting your teen up two hours or so beyond their usual wake-up time, and perhaps take a nap later in the day. Waking in the afternoon simply makes falling asleep at a reasonable hour on Sunday night nearly impossible — and on Monday morning the cycle begins again.
- Try books on tape. Many preschoolers fall asleep to the soothing sounds of a parent reading a bedtime story. Dr. Carskadon suggests that a book on tape played at a barely audible level can help the transition to sleep for teens. Unlike reading, which requires light in the room, books on tape permit the room to be dark, and the quiet voice can function as "white noise" that also helps prevent stray worries from hijacking a teen from sleep.