Monday, October 11, 1999

Wake-up call for sleepy teens

Studies show adolescents need at least nine hours of rest daily and most aren't getting it

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stephanie Safdi, 16, hops back into bed about 7:30 a.m. before leaving for school.
(Yoni Pozner photos)
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        About the time Anne Safdi is ready to call it a day, her three teen-agers turn into night owls.

        “I'm exhausted, and at 10 o'clock at night they're ready to start,” the Hyde Park mom says. “They get their second wind. I see how much energy they have at night, and I don't understand it.”

        Then, the morning after hits. Parents everywhere know the drill. Nothing short of a crowbar can pry sleep-deprived teens from their beds.

        Does that mean teen-agers are a lazy lot? Not really. Scientists are just beginning to understand how they are merely acting their age.

        As a result, school districts across the country are looking for ways to cope with sleepy teens and experts are urging teens to learn how to reset their biological clocks.

        Recent studies of teen-agers' sleep patterns show adolescents need 9 hours and 15 minutes of rest daily. That's more than the eight hours recommended for adults.

Stephanie Safdi

        But their bodies fight the schedules set for them. Sometime in late puberty, the body secretes the sleep-related hormone melatonin at a different time than normal. This changes the “circadian rhythms” that guide their sleep-wake cycles.

        “Our research has shown that biological changes during puberty affect an adolescent's internal sleep-wake clock. Many adolescents are physiologically not ready to fall asleep until 11 p.m. or later,” says Dr. Mary A. Carskadon, Sleep Research Lab director at Bradley Hospital/Brown University in Providence, R.I.

        “The average teen needs about nine hours of sleep, but many students sleep less than seven hours, in part because they need to get to school by 7:30 a.m. or earlier. As a result many teens experience problem sleepiness during the day.”

        A National Sleep Foundation survey earlier this year reported 60 percent of children under age 18 complained of being tired during the day and 15 percent of children fell asleep at school during the past year.

        It's not uncommon in Tristate schools to see sleep-deprived teens struggling to stay awake in class.

        Becky Lambert of White Oak taught high school English for 14 years before joining the Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary.

        “School usually began around 8 a.m. It was a constant fight with a few students to keep them awake and engaged in my class,” Mrs. Lambert says. “Many of them talked about being out until midnight or after or up at home until midnight or after even during the week.”

Why sleep matters
        Sleep is important at any age, but getting adequate sleep during the teen years is crucial, says Dr. Marty Scharf, director of the Tristate Sleep Disorder Center, Springdale.

        “They're still growing and developing. Eighty percent of an individual's growth hormone is released during deep stages of sleep,” Dr. Scharf says. Teens who don't get enough sleep, lose some of the growth hormone. “For some of those kids it can really make a difference between who they are and who they become.”

        Sleep experts also are concerned because excessive sleepiness contributes to decreased concentration, reduced short-term memory and learning ability, moodiness, inconsistent performance and poor productivity.

        “The sleep teen-agers get is so deep, so when they're deprived of it and you try to wake them up in the morning, they are literally out of it,” Dr. Scharf says.

        Sleep deprivation affects their reaction time (important if they're driving) and lowers the immune threshold (so they can get sick easier).

Tale of one teen
        Anne Safdi's daughter, Stephanie, is a 16-year-old junior at Seven Hills Upper School. Stephanie often studies until midnight or 1 a.m. She relaxes before bedtime by reading a novel and listening to music. “I never really like to go to sleep early anyway,” she says. “I feel like I'm missing something.”

        Her mother wakes her up at 7 a.m. on school days, but she often goes back to sleep for 10 minutes before getting out of bed.

        School begins at 8:15 a.m.

        “When I first get to school, I'm wide awake for the first hour or so,” Stephanie says.

        By 9 a.m., she's drowsy.

        While the straight-A, honors-class student has never fallen asleep in class, she says sleepiness cuts into her concentration and reaction time.

        Like a lot of other teens, she adds extracurricular activities that she enjoys to her schedule. Stephanie is on the cross country team, active in her temple and president of the school science club.

        During the day, she's revitalized by food and exercise. She feels most awake around lunch and after she gets home from cross country practice around 5 p.m.

        She seldom relies on caffeine because it gets her wired. On occasion, like two weeks ago when she studied hard for a history test, a Coke helps.

        “I was already tired from staying up late earlier in the week, so I fell asleep on top of my textbooks at about 11:30 and woke up again at 3 o'clock,” Stephanie says.

        “I studied until between 4 and 5 and then was absolutely unable to fall asleep. So I read Little Women for almost half an hour to relax me before I was finally able to fall asleep. To keep myself awake studying that night, I also drank two Cokes and ate a lot of food.”

Common problem
        Stephanie is not alone. Members of an Enquirer parents' panel say some local teens get up as early as 5:45 a.m. to catch a bus for schools with early start times. Sleepy teens steel themselves with naps, exercise and caffeine.

        Denise Harpring of Anderson Township has two sleep-deprived teens.

        “It is not only a problem with the teens staying awake through the day, but when they stay up late and the parents need to go to bed earlier, it is very difficult for parents to get a good night's sleep.”

        Becky Harpring is a 15-year-old Anderson High School sophomore who averages five hours of sleep a night. She sets her alarm for 5:45 a.m., hopes she hears it by 6 a.m. and relies on her mom to make sure she wakes up.

        School starts at 7:20 a.m. and Becky says it's a struggle to stay awake. The Monday morning after homecoming was really tricky.

        “I had several tests that day, and I couldn't even stay awake for those,” Becky says.

        She's a junior varsity cheerleader, so she's up early Saturday mornings, too, catching the bus by 8:30 a.m. She naps on the bus and then hits the concession stand to get a drink with caffeine.

        “Sleep is definitely one of the biggest problems I deal with day in and day out,” she says.

        Becky's sister, Amy, is an 18-year-old Miami University freshman. With 19 credit hours, working seven hours a week, serving on hall council and participating in other extracurricular activities, she gets three to four hours of sleep a night. Bedtime rolls around about 2 or 3 a.m. She wakes up at 6:30 a.m.

What can schools do?
        Across the nation, momentum slowly builds to pressure schools to change their start times.

        One in four parents surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation said they favor adjusting school hours so teens can sleep later in the morning.

        And U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to encourage school districts to set starting times no earlier than 9 a.m. and help them cover costs associated with changing school hours.

        Cincinnati Public School leaders watch the later start time debate with keen interest, but aren't planning to change. Most of their high schools start at 8 to 8:30 a.m.

        School districts nationwide blame bus schedules. Buses take the older kids to school first and then pick up younger children.

        Some districts have adopted later start times. Preliminary findings show that students at Minnesota urban and suburban high schools that delayed their start times felt more rested and alert during the first hour of class.

        However, urban Minneapolis schools with late start times differed from their suburban counterparts in two aspects: student mood appeared unchanged and schedule conflicts with extracurricular activities and employment were more pronounced.

        Not everyone favors later start times. Some Tristate parents say that would wreak havoc with after-school jobs and activities.

        Paul Tomes of Anderson Township has five children, ages 11-17. They are usually in bed by 10 p.m. and wake up by 6:15 a.m. for a 7:25 a.m. start. “My kids are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities after school, and if they started school at a later time, they'd just sleep later in the morning,” Mr. Tomes says.

        What's more, a later school time cuts down on time needed to do homework. “I don't think a lot of folks would be tuned in to extracurriculars, such as soccer, going until 8 or 9 at night.”

Circadian rhythms
        Stacey Wolking of rural Crittenden home schools her four children, including one teen who gets up at 6:30 a.m. and starts school at 8 a.m.

        Don't change school time, she says.

        “Do you think an employer will change their work times, too?” she asks. “I don't think it's their biological clock. Anybody can change their body clock. Ask anyone working third shift. We parents need to acknowledge that teens need more sleep.”

        Like the sleep experts, Mrs. Wolking advises paying attention to circadian rhythms and re-setting the body clock.

        “So it's simple,” she says. “You listen to your body and give it what it needs. Go to bed early or take a nap after school and before sports if needed. Say no to some late-night activities and enjoy the benefits of a much happier household.”

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