By Shelley Murphy
My youngest son spent the first few weeks of his summer break as predicted. He returned home from his freshman year of college and promptly walked out the door to reunite with his high school friends, spending long days on sandy beaches and late nights at local hangouts.
Then, one warm evening, a friendly game of flag football put a stop to his revelry when he fractured his foot, forcing him into a non-weight-bearing cast for more than a month. He said goodbye to the sunny outdoors and hello to a dark bedroom to binge-watch Netflix.
With my son’s summer plans splintered, I suggested he catch-up on his rest after a semester of all-nighters. My son has fought sleep since the day we brought him home from the hospital, and asking my petulant teen to snooze proved as problematic as putting a teething toddler to bed.
When my son was small, I spent countless nights lying near his crib waiting for him to fall asleep. Eventually, our bedtime battles would exhaust us both. But before I’d creep out of his room and return to mine, I’d pause to peek into his crib and marvel at the magic of my sleeping baby boy.
A week into my son’s bedrest, I again suggested he sleep to pass the time. He resisted my request and said, “It’s impossible because of circadian rhythms.”
My soon-to-be sophomore son is studying science, and he’s also familiar with my sluggish left brain, so he translated, “It’s my biological body clock.”
Studies found that a teenager’s internal body clock resets around puberty, creating a natural shift of about two hours in their sleep patterns. When this occurs, adolescents accustomed to falling asleep around 9 p.m. can’t fall asleep until 11 p.m.—and forcing them into an earlier bedtime doesn’t help.
Simply stated, teens are wired to stay up late and wake up late.
In high school, both my boys became creatures of the night, and college helped exacerbate their nocturnal existence. Colleges cultivate their students’ circadian rhythms. When I attended my older son’s freshman orientation, I was surprised to learn that the welcome week activities, including carnivals and movie nights, all began at 10 p.m.
Last month, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released its first official recommendations for sleep required to promote optimal health in children and teenagers. They found teens ages 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night.
Parents and educators aware of the advantages of well-rested pupils are launching grassroots movements across the country imploring schools to implement later start times.
Researchers agree teens perform their best academically and behaviorally the later the school day starts and offer this analogy: “Requiring an older teenager to wake up at 7 a.m. is like asking a teacher to wake up at 4:30 a.m.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, five out of six middle and high schools ring their first bell before 8:30 a.m., despite recommendations that secondary schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to promote students’ mental and physical wellbeing.
Sleep-deprived teens are more susceptible to a host of health problems ranging from accident-prone injuries to feelings of anxiety.
Despite school start times that some consider inhumane, most district officials remain reluctant to change existing schedules citing logistical and fiscal impacts to athletics, extracurriculars and bus schedules.
Next month another school year starts and students are stocking up on classroom supplies when what they really need to stockpile is sleep.
My son’s counting down the time until the doctor cuts off his cast and he returns to college. He’s adjusted to his days in a cast but not his nights; he’s uncomfortable, and it takes hours for him to fall asleep. When he finally does doze off, I can’t resist pausing to glance at my grown son sleeping like a baby in his childhood bedroom—it’s a sight I never tire of seeing.
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband for the past 17 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the SC Times since 2006.