Why is sleep important for teenagers?

Young woman sitting on bed PC

If you’re the parent or carer of a teenager, you might already know that getting good sleep has a big impact on their health and wellbeing.

But when your teen is having trouble sleeping, lots of questions can come up: How much sleep do they need? Why aren’t they sleeping enough? What can I do to help them get better sleep?

In this article, we cover all those common questions you might have, as well as what you can do to help your teen get the sleep they need.

Why does sleep matter so much for teens?

It’s no secret that sleep is important for everyone. But as teens hurtle through a time of very fast physical, mental and emotional growth, quality sleep is crucial for fuelling their brains and bodies. For teens, getting good sleep helps with their:

  • analytical and creative thinking

  • physical health and development

  • attention, memory and motivation

  • mental health, mood and wellbeing

  • decision making and reduced risk taking.

How much sleep do teenagers need and does it differ between ages?

The National Sleep Health Foundation recommends that teens need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night. While this is the recommended amount, every teen is different: some may need a little more, while others may need a little less. However, it’s not recommended that a teenager gets less than 7 or more than 11 hours of sleep a night.

Unfortunately, most teenagers are falling short of this recommended quota and are sleeping, on average, for only between 6.5 and 7.5 hours a night.

What can cause sleep issues in teens?

There isn’t one specific reason why teens aren’t getting enough sleep. Instead, several factors play a part in the problem.

Some common reasons young people experience sleep issues include:

On top of these everyday stressors, other factors can cause sleep issues:

  • Your teen’s changing body clock. Puberty hormones can shift a teen’s body clock in a way that makes them sleepier one to two hours later than adults. Of course, this becomes a problem when your teen can’t sleep in to catch up, due to their school schedule. When this sleep debt builds up, it can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.

  • Mental health. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can make it harder for your teen to sleep well. At the same time, sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor to the onset (and worsening) of mental health issues.

  • Technology and screen use. Using devices such as smartphones and computers around bedtime (including to game) can cause teens to lose track of time and miss out on sleep. The bright lights and blue light from these devices can also impact sleep.

  • Sleep disorders. Sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, delayed sleep phase syndrome, narcolepsy and parasomnias can all make it very difficult to get enough sleep and may require treatment by a professional.

  • Neurodiverse disorders. Disorders such as ADHD and autism can make it difficult for teens to sleep well. Disrupted sleep hygiene in teens can also lead to more pronounced symptoms.

  • Poor sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is all about the habits and environments that promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep, such as setting a sleep schedule, having a relaxing pre-bed routine, creating a calm bedroom environment and building healthy daily habits.

What are the signs and symptoms of sleep issues in teens?

Sleep issues can impact almost every aspect of your teen’s life, so there are many different signs and symptoms to look out for. If your teen is having sleep issues, they may:

  • forget things easily

  • make poor or risky decisions

  • be moody or aggressive

  • take frequent naps throughout the day

  • not perform as well at school or in sport

  • struggle to concentrate in class or at home

  • feel drowsy, lethargic or sick during the day

  • miss school due to tiredness, or they might refuse to go

  • feel groggy in the morning and be unable able to wake up easily

  • have slower physical reflexes or be more clumsy (which can result in physical injuries).

It’s also important to look out for signs of possible sleep disorders, which can include:

  • regularly taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep

  • having difficulty staying asleep throughout the night

  • snoring, gasping or choking during sleep

  • feeling like they can’t move when they wake up.

What strategies can help your teen to sleep better?

If your teen’s having trouble sleeping, there are many things you can do to support them. Importantly, having open and honest discussions is key here, as this will help you to implement these strategies together.

Strategies to help improve sleep hygiene in your teen include:

  • working out a regular sleep schedule

  • encouraging a relaxing bedtime routine

  • creating a calm sleep environment

  • promoting healthy daily habits

  • setting time limits on stimulating activities such as device usage and homework

  • checking up on their weekly schedule to see if they’re overcommitted

  • leading by example and making good-quality sleep a family commitment

  • getting professional support if needed.

For detailed advice on these strategies, check out our article on practical strategies to improve your teen’s sleep. We also spoke to a number of parents to get their top tips for helping your teen sleep better.

What if my teen needs further help with their sleep issues?

If you’ve tried every trick in the book and self-help strategies aren’t really working for your teen, it’s a good idea to seek further help.

A good first step is for your teen to see their GP. They can help to identify any possible causes and offer some initial suggestions, or refer them to another health professional, such as a sleep specialist or mental health professional. Find out more about these options in our article on professional support for teen sleep issues.

Depending on the kind of sleep issues your teen is having, whether or not they’re grappling with a recognised sleep disorder, a healthcare professional can help tailor the right kind of treatment, which often involves a combination of approaches. The following are some common treatments:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I is an evidence-based treatment for insomnia, in which trained professionals can help your teen to identify unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours that might be contributing to their insomnia.

  • Improved sleep hygiene. Strong sleep hygiene is a recommended approach for many sleep issues (and usually works in tandem with other treatments). It’s all about creating good habits that set the stage for quality, uninterrupted sleep. You can dig more into these strategies here.

  • Relaxation techniques. Taking time to practise relaxation techniques during the day and at night can make a big difference to your teen’s sleep. These techniques include slow breathing, yoga poses, meditation and mindfulness.

  • Light therapy. There’s a strong connection between light and sleep, especially if your teen experiences insomnia or a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a specially designed light box or visor for a certain amount of time each day (under the guidance of a medical professional).

  • Lifestyle changes. There are many healthy lifestyle habits that promote good sleep, such as getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, avoiding smoking, moderating alcohol use, and cutting back on caffeine.

  • Medication. In some cases, medication or supplements may be prescribed by a medical professional to help treat sleep disorders. Your teen’s doctor will be able to recommend which medication is suitable for them.

Helpful resources for dealing with sleep issues in teens

The following resources can provide more information on teenagers and sleep:

You can also share these ReachOut resources with your teen:

While improving your teen’s sleep won’t happen overnight, it’s important to keep working on it. By understanding why sleep is important for your teen, developing strategies with them and getting professional support if needed, you’ll be better placed to help them get the sleep they need (and deserve).