Helping Your Teenager Get More Sleep—Without Medication

Everyone knows how important sleep is these days. It’s a vital part of living a happy and healthy life. While this is true for everyone, it’s especially important for teenagers. Between the ages of 13 and 18, the body goes through an immense amount of growth, both physically and emotionally—and it’s imperative to get the appropriate amount of sleep to facilitate these changes. Health professionals agree that teenagers should be getting eight to nine hours of sleep every night, but a recent Pediatrics study has found that less than 3% of teens actually do. As the importance of sleep has become more evident in recent years, it’s no surprise that more and more teenagers are turning to medications, aids and supplements to help them get the sleep they need. But is that the best solution?

Much more than just a period of physical growth, the teenage years are also a time of significant brain development. That’s because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for complex thinking and decision making, is undergoing some serious maturation. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is also particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation, no matter your age.

For teenagers, added sleep deprivation can further exacerbate the cognitive, emotional and behavioral issues that are stereotypically attributed to moody teens. This can include diminished focus and attention, poor judgement, greater tendency to engage in risky behaviors and irritability or impaired moods.

But as any parent can probably attest, it can seem nearly impossible get a teenager to go to bed and wake up at a reasonable hour. It turns out that biology could be to blame for these poor sleep habits. Science has shown that your circadian rhythm naturally shifts during puberty, making it physically more difficult for teens to fall asleep early. With break-of-dawn school start times, it’s no wonder that so many teenagers are not getting adequate rest.

Unfortunately, even if your teen is able to sleep in later in the morning, the quality of their sleep may still be compromised. Some research has found that the type of sleep experienced between 10pm and 3am—the non-REM kind—is deeper and more restorative than the REM sleep we get between 3am and 7am. So, if your teen is staying up until the wee hours of the morning, then they’re more likely to wake up feeling groggy and unrested even if they’ve slept a full eight hours.

Facing this uphill battle, more and more parents and teenagers are looking to sleep aids for help. Released in September, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health surveyed more than 1,000 parents of teenagers to learn more about the different strategies being they use to help their teens deal with sleep issues. According to the study, 36% of teenagers have tried natural or herbal remedies like melatonin and 28% have tried some form of medication to help them sleep. Of the various types of medications available today, the study found that 16% of teens have tried over-the-counter medicines like NyQuil or Advil PM, while 14% have used an antihistamine like Benadryl and 5% have turned to prescription sleep medicine.

Only 25% of the parents surveyed said they had talked with their doctor about their teenagers’ sleep problems. This is especially troubling, because there is little consensus on the best practices for kids in this age bracket, even among medical professionals. Some physicians believe that prescription medication is the way to go because they are subject to a level of testing and regulation that natural supplements are not. Others recommend natural sleep aids because prescription medication has a higher risk of side-effects and addiction.

In limited quantities, sleep aids can be a helpful course correction for larger sleep issues—but any sort of long-term usage poses serious risks. This is especially true for teenagers, as their brains are still growing and developing. Even more alarming, there has been no official research done on how these medications can affect adolescent brains. Given that some studies have shown that long-term use of over-the-counter sleep aids can have detrimental side-effects like cognitive impairment for adults, parents should be wary of allowing their teenagers to adopt the habit.

To be truly effective, any type of medicinal intervention should be combined with other strategies like creating a more reliable sleep environment and building better habits.

Some parents may be hesitant to shell out top dollar on their teenager’s sleep set-up because of how quickly young bodies grow. Why invest in something they will likely outgrow in a few short years? Though these changes in shape and size may seem drastic, a good sleep system will be able to support and accommodate most growth spurts—and a mattress with the proper comfort and support levels may even help alleviate any aches and pains they experience along the way.

Of course, the mattress is not the only product to consider. Pillows make up nearly a quarter of the overall sleep surface and have a significant impact on sleep comfort. Getting regularly fit for the right size pillow can make a world of difference. 

There is one big trend in the sleep industry that you should avoid for teenagers: tech-enhanced products. While bed bases with USB ports and other electronic features can be a fun selling point for adult consumers, they can create unnecessary temptation for teens who have not yet mastered impulse control quite yet. According to the Mott poll, 56% of parents said phones, social media and other electronics contributed to their child’s lack of sleep. Other studies have found that more than 90% of teenagers are using some type of digital technology before bedtime. As we all know, the blue light emitted from these screens can delay the production of melatonin and make it more difficult to fall asleep.

There are a number of different reasons why teenagers are struggling to get the sleep they need. Though medication and supplements can seem like an easy fix, so far it remains unclear if the risks outweigh the rewards. By investing in a quality sleep system that will provide the proper comfort and support, parents can be confident that they are helping their teenager get the sleep they need to really thrive.

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This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on November 8, 2018

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