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Teenagers Staying Up Late: A Biologically Driven Change

Any parent who has observed a child moving into adolescence knows that changing sleep habits are an integral part of this new territory.  It has long been thought that later bedtimes are inevitable for teenagers given their surge in autonomy, their greater connectedness with peers, and their great number of after school activities.

That is true, to a certain extent.  However, according to a paper documenting a longitudinal study of adolescent sleep, researchers have observed significant changes in the adolescent brain that are linked both to teens' delayed bedtimes and to their much greater daytime sleepiness.1 

Reading this journal article, I realized that these findings could benefit both teenagers and parents: by taking some weight off the shoulders of teenagers who feel pressure from their parents and teachers who want them to go to sleep earlier, and by offering parents some greater understanding about an issue that often causes conflict within families.

So what is this new evidence?  Researchers know that prior to adolescence, a young child's brain is ceaselessly making new synapses (at the fastest rate in a life time) as it takes in new information. According to this study, the work of the adolescent brain is to “massively” prune all those synapses, and in so doing to reorganize the brain to make it work much more efficiently. 

How does this relate to sleep? The result of this greater efficiency is that the adolescent brain does not build up the pressure to sleep as quickly as the brain of a younger child.  An adolescent’s brain does not signal for the release of melatonin to bring on sleep until several hours later than the brain of a younger child.  As a result, teenagers simply don’t get sleepy until later at night, often not until 11 p.m.  With typical school schedules, that same teenager has to be out of the house by 7 a.m. (and often earlier), leaving them with a scant 7 hours of sleep when their need for sleep hasn’t changed at all (the recommended amount of sleep for teenagers is 10 hours, the same as for other school-age children). 

What we have then is an epidemic of sleep-deprived adolescents, right at the time when they are being asked to perform at their very best levels, both in academic and extra-curricular pursuits.  Mary Carskadon, a preeminent sleep researcher at Brown University, refers to this situation as a recipe for a “perfect storm” in the lives of teenagers today.2

What can be done?  Changing start times for high schools back to reasonable times of 8:30 or 9:00 is a crucial first step.  Accompanying this change should be the equally significant effort to increase awareness and educate both teenagers and their parents about sleep and the importance of sleep for their health and success in school and on the playing field.

Recognizing the value of sleep and honoring the continually mounting evidence from current research is what we owe the adolescents we love.


1 Feinberg, Irwin, Campbell, Ian G., (2010). “Sleep EEG Changes During Adolescence: An Index of a Fundamental Brain Reorganization,” Brain and Cognition, 72 (2010), 56-65.

2 Carskadon, Mary A., (2006).  “Sleep, Teens, & Schools: Why Johnny Can’t Stay Awake,” Learning and the Brain: Optimizing the Brain and Body to Improve Learning, November 10, 2006.

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