Sacrificing Sleep Makes For Run-Down Teens — And Parents

Mar 1, 2013
Originally published on March 1, 2013 6:00 am

When NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health asked parents and caregivers in our new poll whether getting a good night's sleep is important, families overwhelmingly told us that sleep is a high priority.

But almost all said that it's difficult to pull off. And studies suggest this is especially true for teenagers.

As we've reported in our On the Run series, families are feeling stretched by the competing demands on their time.

Celeste Higgins of Miami, Fla., knows the struggle. Her two kids, ages 12 and 16, have demanding academic schedules and play competitive sports. Higgins also has a full-time job, so she often finds herself sacrificing her own sleep to make sure her kids are on track and where they need to be, such as at a 7 a.m. regatta.

"There just aren't enough hours in the day," she says. Her son Rory, who has rowing team practice six days a week, is often up until about midnight doing homework. And his day starts at the crack of dawn, leaving about 6 or 6 1/2 hours for sleep each night.

"I don't really think it's enough," Rory told us, "but that's what I run on, and I've gotten used to it."

Lots of teens are cruising by on too little sleep, but that's not ideal.

"All of the data we have suggests that teenagers need 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night," explains sleep expert Helene Emsellem, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md.

When teens don't get enough sleep, there are consequences beyond just being more irritable or moody.

Over the long term, a lack of sleep can influence appetite, nudging a person to reach for more empty carbohydrates and sugar. Inadequate sleep also seems to send a signal to our bodies to store more fat. A recent study found that sleep deprivation reduces insulin sensitivity, setting the stage for a range of metabolic problems, including Type 2 diabetes and weight gain.

"We have a growing body of literature that ties weight gain to our 24/7 society and inadequate sleep," says Emsellem.

For now, most of the data come from studies of adults. But researchers have begun to find correlations with children and adolescents, too.

And there's another consequence of being poorly rested: "When we're sleepy, we have a cognitive disorder of focus, attention and concentration," Emsellem says.

The forgetfulness and distraction that's so common among teens, she says, may result partly from sleepiness.

Though some top students can thrive despite a sleep deficit, others may not be so lucky. Being well-rested, researchers say, enhances academic performance.

Why? "We are actually learning during sleep," says Emsellem. In some sleep stages, our brains are taking the information we've gathered during the day "and laying it down into the memories that are going to allow us to retrieve the information" at a later time, she explains.

A short catnap can be restorative, she says. But limit the nap to no more than 30 minutes, and try to sneak it in before 5 p.m.

Catching extra shut-eye on the weekends can help the sleep-starved, Emsellem says, but you don't want to sleep so late that you reset your body clock, making it hard to drift off at a reasonable hour the next night. A good rule of thumb is to sleep no more than two hours past your typical weekday wake-up time.

And here are a few more tips aimed particularly at teens:

1. Keep a regular study schedule: Cramming late at night cuts into sleep, and may create an irregular sleep-wake schedule.

2. Turn off the electronics earlier in the evening, especially the hour before you need to hit the sack. Text-messaging, watching television, playing video games and doing other sorts of computer work can disrupt your ability to fall asleep. And a chirping cellphone may wake you up at night.

3. Eliminate or cut down on caffeine, particularly in the three to five hours before you want to fall asleep.

This story is part of the series On the Run: How Families Struggle to Eat Well and Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


I'm Renee Montagne. And Steve, I hope you don't feel as badly as you sound.


INSKEEP: Oh, well, it's no problem. I feel fine. And it's Friday, anyway.

MONTAGNE: Oh, OK. You've got the weekend to rest up.


MONTAGNE: Well, you know, getting enough sleep is as important to your health as eating well and exercising. But when our lives get too busy, shut-eye is often the thing we sacrifice first. As part of our poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, we asked families whether they think their kids are getting enough sleep. As part of our "On the Run" series, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Our poll finds that most families set a bedtime for kids. And most parents say that their children are well-rested. But by the time kids hit the teenage years, studies show that things start to crumble. Mom Celeste Higgins knows the struggle. When we reached her at 10:30 on Monday night at her home in Miami, her teenage son Rory was just finishing his dinner.

CELESTE HIGGINS: It's 10:30, come on. Finish up.

RORY: I'm sorry...

AUBREY: He had rowing practice tonight, and he's still got school projects to work on. Rory says it's usually about midnight before he climbs into bed

RORY: I normally do homework till about 11, 11:30.

AUBREY: And he reserves a little time for socializing.

RORY: Mostly through like, Facebook and texting while I'm doing homework.

AUBREY: Which pushes bedtime back a smidge, too. So how many hours of sleep is Rory getting each night .

RORY: Probably about seven hours.

AUBREY: Or less. His mom says he averages six, maybe six and a half hours. And does this feel like enough?

RORY: No, I don't really think it's - I don't think it's enough. But that's what I normally run on, and I've gotten used to it.

AUBREY: Rory's story is typical of what we found in our poll. Parents say that a good night's sleep is a high priority. But almost half of families say it's difficult to pull off. Celeste Higgins says she'd love for her kids to get more sleep but...

HIGGINS: There just really aren't enough hours in the day. I mean, he has all honors classes, and that requires a lot of homework. And I don't see any other way around it.

AUBREY: Sleep expert Helene Emsellem says many parents assume teens can cruise by on little sleep, but it's certainly not ideal.

HELENE EMSELLEM: All of the data that we have suggests that in fact, teenagers need eight and a half to nine and a quarter hours of sleep per night.

AUBREY: And when they don't get it, Emsellem says, there are consequences beyond just being more irritable, and moodier. For one, it can influence eating and snacking. Night shift workers have reported craving more carbs and sugar - so doughnut consumption may go up. And Emsellem says being sleepy actually seems to send a signal to our bodies to store more fat.

EMSELLEM: We have a growing body of literature that ties weight gain and our obesity epidemic to our 24/7 society, and inadequate sleep at night.

AUBREY: And as if this weren't enough, there's another consequence.

EMSELLEM: When we're sleepy, we have a cognitive disorder of focus, attention and concentration.

AUBREY: And what does this look like in teens?

EMSELLEM: Being distracted, looking as if you have attention deficit disorder, can very much be due just to sleepiness.

AUBREY: Mom Celeste Higgins says she does see some of this. When her seventh-grade daughter, Julia, is tired, she loses and forgets things.

HIGGINS: Like her school shoes or her school uniform. And for my son, it's sort of the same thing. He'll forget that he was supposed to call; or things that are - not major, but they're things that you wouldn't forget to do if you really were well-rested.

AUBREY: Now, if these connections are real, they certainly have not dawned on many parents. Celeste Higgins says in some circles, parents think that pushing your kids to do a lot is the way to show you've got high expectations.

HIGGINS: The busier your child, I guess the better a parent you are perceived to be.

AUBREY: Celeste says she does push back, limiting her kids' activities. But still, keeping up with their schedule is really taking its toll on all of them - especially since she's the only parent at home, and she has a full-time job.

HIGGINS: I am so tired. I feel like I've been tired for the last five years. (LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: And for now, Celeste says, there's no easy way to slow down.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And we have Allison Aubrey here in the studio with us. So Allison, let me ask you - it does sound rough; obviously, a lot of busy families have competing demands on their times. Are there any tips for helping families get more sleep?

AUBREY: Yeah. Hi there, Renee. There really are some good workarounds. I think the top tip here is, take a nap. I mean, experts say short naps, little catnaps 30 minutes or less, can very restorative. Rory - the family we just heard from - sometimes takes a nap on the bus between school and rowing. And that's perfect.

What teens don't want to do is fall into a deep sleep because, as Helene Emsellem explains, what happens then is you have a really hard time powering back up. If you cycle into deep, slow-wave sleep, it's more likely that you're going to wake up feeling really groggy. So short naps are the efficient way to manage this.

MONTAGNE: And what about that most attractive idea - sleeping in on weekends?

AUBREY: Well, Renee, I can tell you, as the mother of a teenage boy, you have to allow your teens to catch up on sleep, on days off. I mean, it's something we have to do. When you're waking up at 6 a.m. during the week, it's really a grind. But the tip to remember here is that if you're going to sleep in on a Saturday or a Sunday morning, for hours and hours past what your weekday schedule is, you can really disrupt the body clock. And then it would make it harder to go to bed at a decent hour, when Sunday night rolls around. So the rule of thumb here is to think about two hours. Let your kids sleep in about two extra hours, on days off. And then try to get to bed a little earlier, too - which, of course, is easier said than done when it comes to teens.

MONTAGNE: Well, right - can you just tell a teen to turn off the light?

AUBREY: Well, when you talk to sleep experts, they'll tell you that this is a really smart thing to do - try to have a set bedtime, ideally for the whole house. You know, tell them it's time to power down, cut off their phones or whatever device they may be tethered to, at a specific time. But you know, here's the hard part of the advice: As parents, we should be doing the same thing - cutting ourselves off. I mean, if we're in bed with our electronics, we're basically sending a message "do as I say, not as I do." And that's not such effective parenting. So one caveat here, I should mention, is that Helene Emsellem - the sleep expert - says if soothing music helps, you know, listening to a little music in bed at bedtime, is OK.

MONTAGNE: Allison, thanks very much.

AUBREY: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.