How much sleep do kids need to be at their best? It’s a question parents struggle with when their children beg to sleep just a little longer on school days. Letting them sleep in means letting them be tardy for school. But letting them sleep in means healthier, happier kids, more able to take in their lessons.
On weekends and in summer, on the other hand, how long kids sleep is far less of a problem. School’s not in session, so kids can sleep ’til the cows come home, and it won’t make a lick of a difference. For this reason, summer comes to many parents as a big relief. Kids can stay up late and wake up late and there’s no need to fuss or freak out.
Of course, parents often think to themselves during the school year, if kids would only go to bed on time, they’d wake up on time. Except science tells us it’s not like that at all. The American Medical Association (AMA) has found that puberty comes with a natural shift in circadian rhythm that cause kids go to sleep later and wake up later. Which is why the AMA has recommended school start times begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
In addition to actively pushing middle and high schools across the U.S. to have later start times, the AMA is encouraging doctors to educate parents and teachers about the importance of sleep for good mental and physical health. By now, scientists know exactly how much sleep kids need to be healthy. They also know the impact on kids of not getting enough sleep. “Sleep deprivation is a growing public health issue affecting our nation’s adolescents, putting them at risk for mental, physical and emotional distress and disorders,” said AMA Board Member William E. Kobler, M.D.
“Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation’s young people,” says Kobler.
How Much Sleep Should Teens Get?
How much sleep kids need is an issue that is now front and center, since just 32% of American teens are getting, on average, the bare minimum of 8 hours of sleep on school nights. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) just issued consensus guidelines on how much sleep kids need, according to age. AASM says “teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.”
So you’ve got fewer than half of all American teenagers getting the minimum amount of sleep they need to be healthy and do well in school. And we know that teens need to go to bed later and wake up later according to their natural biological sleep cycles. At the same time, some 10% of all U.S. high schools have start times of 7:30 a.m. or even earlier.
Why the early start times, if kids need more sleep, and later sleep and wake times? Schools are trying to cram in extra classes for things like sports and extracurricular activities. There just aren’t enough hours in the school day to get them all in.
Meantime, research shows that not getting enough sleep affects health, academic performance, and behavior. Lack of sleep results in poor memory and mood disorders. Teens who sleep fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As for health, sleep deprivation can bring on high blood pressure, metabolic conditions like diabetes, and a weakened immune system. Researchers have also found a connection between body mass index (BMI) and sleep. It seems those who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be underweight, overweight, or even obese.
Schools may struggle (as parents have struggled all these years) with finding enough hours in the school day to serve students all they want to give them, now that the AMA is pushing for later start times. But in the end, it looks like something’s got to give, and that something has got to be the schools. “While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences,” said Dr. Kobler.