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A recent study showed that 30% of US teens were not getting enough sleep. This can affect a child’s learning, mental health, and physical health as well. Here are 8 tips to help set your child up for adequate (about 8-11 hours) and restful sleep at night.
1. Talk about the benefits of sleeping
It’s hard to get kids, especially teens, to follow through with a recommendation just because the parents or pediatrician said so. When you talk to kids about bedtime expectations, include 1-2 reasons why this is important for them and the family. Adequate sleep is associated with better focus, working memory (aka smarter!), healthier and stronger bodies (i.e. weight, but I don’t like using that “weight” with kids and teens because I don’t want them to focusing on numbers), more growth in height (weak correlation, but does it really matter if that motivates them?), and less anxiety and depression.
2. Consistent bedtime routine
Everyone does better with routine, especially babies and toddlers and even older kids and teens. Keeping a consistent bedtime helps the body and brain physically, chemically, and mentally settle down. One study also shows that when parents determine the bed time, kids sleep longer and are more rested. I suspect the part of the reason for this is because those parents are also more mindful/strict on other aspects of life that contribute to restful sleep such as limiting screen time and encouraging proper nutrition and adequate exercise.
3. Decrease screen time
Use of electronics – video games, texting, games, shows – is pervasive in a child’s life, starting at very young ages. While the old teaching is to avoid putting a TV in a child’s room, the new technology has put a digital device a child’s hands. Judicious use can have some social and communication benefits, but those supporting points are canceled out by their negatives when used in the evening or in excess. They become distracting and decrease sleep restfulness and duration as well as increase daytime sleepiness. Even adults have a hard time parting with our phones, so it may be best for everyone to have their phones charge overnight in one communal location. This is also a good opportunity to teach the next generation about stand alone alarm clocks! (Check out some fun ones and a more traditional model below.)
4. Limit caffeine and food prior to bedtime
Caffeine intake, often coupled with high sugar content, increases how long a kid or teen takes to go to sleep and decreases deep, restful sleep. Generally, eating before bed is associated with consuming more unhealthy snacks – high in sugar and salt, low in protein and fiber – and with screen time use. Both of these factors decrease sleep restfulness and duration. Caffeine and snacking prior to laying down for the night may also lead to reflux symptoms that affect sleep quality and comfort.
Best to avoid caffeine altogether, and to avoid food 1-2 hours prior to bedtime.
5. Avoid afternoon naps
Napping may be tempting, but it doesn’t offer long term benefits and it interferes with night time sleep quality, duration, and efficiency. If absolutely necessary, a nap for 10-30 minute nap may increase productivity, but longer naps decrease productivity and may increase risk of health problems such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
6. Exercise during the day
Moderate to vigorous exercise is generally recommended and beneficial to many aspects of a child’s (and adult’s) mental and physical health, including a boost to sleep quality. Physical activity during the day can decrease how long it takes to fall asleep and can increase sleep restfulness and duration. Exercising even up to one hour before bed doesn’t seem to negatively effect nighttime snoozing, so our kids have the whole day and part of the evening to get moving!
7. Avoid drastic weekend sleep changes
Keeping a consistent bedtime routine also applies to the weekend as recommended above. It may seem tempting to let kids catch up on sleep on the weekends, but this can lead to more sleep problems by making it harder for them on the weekdays to fall asleep on time.
While everyone’s internal clock is different and responds differently to change, a good place to start if a teen would like to sleep in is to allow no more than an hour extra. Then, expose them to lots of light and get them moving with chores, exercise, or errands. Being awake but in a dark room scrolling through Tik Tok and Snapchat probably won’t get the body awake very efficiently. Avoiding too much variation between weekend and weekday sleep is not just a matter of when kids fall asleep and wake up, but also a matter of what they are doing when they wake up.
8. Start school later
Starting school later by half an hour actually increases sleep during by an hour. The math is weird, but the data is strong and steady that starting school later has many benefits for teens, starting with improved sleep during and quality. While this is not something that the family can control, it is one that the family can get involved with. Data can only take us as far as what people who make policy do with it. Write a letter to the local newspaper like I did. Write to the school board. Get the kids involved – their voices are always so fresh and after all, this is an issue that involves their health and safety. Get more facts here.
This is not medical advice, but rather information for the general public and for children who are generally healthy. There are certain conditions affecting sleep that may require further evaluation, such as anxiety, depression, and snoring/sleep apnea. Please discuss specific questions and concerns with your doctor and/or your child’s doctor.
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Read more about how screen time affects sleep in children and teens, plus solutions to take back control of our bedtimes and night time rest.