Willows Pediatrics Blog - We Know Kids
We Know Kids
The Willows Pediatrics Blog

School Start Time, Sleep and Your Adolescent: Time for a Change

Sleep for Success LogoIf your high-school-aged teen has struggled getting up for school in the morning, you are not alone.  What has been commonly observed, that adolescents’ sleep cycle shifts as they hit puberty so that adolescents become night owls, have trouble waking up in the morning, and then experience excessive sleepiness during the day – has recently received national attention as a public health issue.

With the benefit of neuroscience we now know that teens aren’t just lazy; their natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m. and wake up before 8:00 a.m.  This is because adolescents’ biological sleep-wake cycle begins to shift two to three hours later at the start of puberty.  This sleep-phase shift affects teenagers around the world, regardless of parenting methods, technology use, or sleep hygiene.  Even adolescents in pre-industrial cultures without cell phones or computers develop the same sleep-cycle delay.

This change in sleep rhythms presents a challenge when teens then have to get up to be in school for a first period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.  A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders, and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights (AAP News, 2014).  In fact, if your teen sleeps in on the weekends more than two hours past his or her weekday wake up time, your child is sleep deprived.

Sleep deprivation has serious negative consequences on adolescent health.  According to Dr Judith Owens, MD FAAP and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement School Start Times for Adolescents, “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.”

Later middle and high school start times are important for our student athletes as well.  Whether an adolescent gets enough sleep is the strongest single predictor of whether he or she will get injured playing sports – it has more of an influence than hours of practice, number of sports played, strength training regimens, gender, or coaching styles.

Athletes who sleep on average less than 8 hours per night experience 68% more sports injuries than students who sleep for 8 or more hours.  Getting adequate sleep also improves athletic performance so significantly that professional and collegiate sports teams now make sleep a top priority in their training regimes.

Based on the abundant authoritative scientific evidence that students get more and better quality sleep when school starts later, and recognizing the impact chronic sleep deprivation has on the health and safety of adolescents nationwide, the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous other health organizations have urged middle and high schools to change the start time of class to 8:30 a.m. or later:

The fact that almost 9 in 10 high school students do not get enough sleep every night is a public health issue that deserves a serious, immediate response.  Luckily, unlike many public health issues, it has a simple and obvious fix: start schools later.  Locally, in Fairfield County, some schools have already adopted later start times. Wilton Public Schools moved their high school start time later in in 2003.  Greenwich High School will start classes at 8:30 am in the fall of 2017, and Ridgefield has pledged to implement later school start times for the 2018-2019 school year.

The physicians at Willows Pediatrics, as advocates for our adolescent patients and their families, are excited to support local efforts to delay secondary school start times along with all pediatricians in Westport.  One such effort, Sleep for Success, is a non-profit founded by local parents dedicated to bringing families, educators, school administrators and health professionals together in an effort to educate the community about the importance of sleep and change school start times in Westport’s public schools.  For the sake of our patients and our families, we hope that more and more towns will realize the benefits and take steps, as challenging as they may be, to enact a later school start time for middle and high school students.