The double paradox of teen "back to school" sleep

Sleep supposedly refreshes and recharges our exhausted bodies. Holidays likewise have the same effect. Why then, after a long summer holiday, are teachers and parents seeing many teenagers returning to school in an exhausted and sleep deprived state? Why, also, do they seem, paradoxically, to be most sleepy first thing in the mornings, and over flowing with energy in the evenings? A high school teacher friend of mine said to me a couple of days ago, “my students are coming into class each morning like zombies. They should be fresh and alert and ready to go at the beginning of the school year!”

The answer to both these questions lies in the fact that many teenagers, and some pre-teens, have a late body clock. Our body clocks regulate when we sleep. A late body clock means one tends to go to bed, and get up late, which is what normal teenagers do during school holidays. The problem is that those with a late body clock have great trouble readjusting to a sleep pattern that fits in with the school timetable, once school starts. They lie awake at night, unable to sleep, and have extreme difficulties getting up in the mornings, and then they are tired, lethargic and moody during the first part of the day. They try and compensate by throwing down energy drinks, but they remain in a “jet-lag” type state, and classroom learning suffers. Daylight saving tends to worsen this problem.

In the USA, education authorities in many states have sensibly adopted late high school starting times to cope with this widespread problem, but in Australia this has not occurred. However, at SleepShack, we can readjust late teen body clocks. It is important to start this early in the school year, as we use the cessation of daylight saving time as an aid to treatment (except if you live in Queensland!). Also, body clock readjustment becomes difficult later in the year when school pressures mount, exhaustion worsens, and stress and anxiety are more likely to occur.

So, how can you tell if a young person has this problem? Simply answer these two questions. Is your teenager difficult to wake on school mornings? Does your teenager sleep in for two hours or more on weekends? If the answer to either or both of these questions is “yes”, then a late body clock is the likely explanation. You can read more about adolescent sleep deprivation in the “Press” and “Research” sections of SleepShack, and we are ready to help if required.

Dr Chris Seton, SleepShack