UNM Health System
The UNM Health System includes UNM Hospitals, UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center and the UNM Medical Group, Inc.

More than one parent has been known to march into their child’s bedroom on a weekend morning crying out, “Up and at ‘em.”  When the sun is up, there are chores to be completed and it seems lazy to let the kids stay in bed all morning. 

Not so fast, say the experts from the UNM Hospital and Sandoval Regional Medical Center Sleep Disorders Centers.

Children and adolescents need more sleep than adults.  The National Sleep Foundation puts the requirements at ten hours per night for those 4-12, with eight to nine-and-a-half hours per night being the goal for adolescents.

It’s not a matter of laziness: children’s bodies need the restorative qualities that adequate sleep can provide, says Nancy Polnaszek, unit director of the UNM Hospital and SRMC Sleep Disorders Centers.

Complicating matters is a normal biologic tendency for many adolescents and young adults to develop a condition called delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. That may be why your teenager can’t fall asleep until midnight or later and, if not disturbed on weekends, will sleep long into the morning. Scientists have found that the brain’s internal clock actually resets to a later 24-hour cycle in these youngsters. Luckily, for most teens this does not last into adulthood. For this reason, many school districts throughout the country are shifting high school start times to later in the morning, with measurable improvements in academic performance.

During the school year, early morning wakeups cut into a child’s sleep time.  Moreover, sleep experts refer to a regular routine of insufficient sleep as incurring a “sleep debt,” since the effect adds up day by day.  A week’s worth of risings before daybreak, especially coupled with late nights due to homework, extra-mural school activities, television, or cell phones can leave children exhausted, Polnaszek said.

Lack of sleep can make for a cranky child, increase depression in teenagers, and translate into poor report card results.  And, the negative effects do not stop there added Sleep Center director Lee Brown, MD, and a professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.

Sleep deprivation can also contribute to obesity and many of the medical problems associated with being overweight, he said. 

Like adults, children and teens can also suffer from treatable sleep disorders including Restless Legs Syndrome (sometimes mistaken as “growing pains”) and obstructive sleep apnea, Brown said.  

“Lack of sleep may affect every area of a school-age child’s development and it is as critical as exercise and good nutrition for children,” Brown said.

In addition, research studies have found that disturbed or insufficient sleep during adolescence is associated with impaired memory, decision-making, attention, and problem solving, he said. Other studies have shown that untreated obstructive sleep apnea, which is as prevalent in children as in adults, can lower a child’s IQ scores.

So Brown’s advice is - for most kids - let the chores wait for an hour or two next weekend so they can sleep in and pay back their sleep debt. Those few hours of additional shuteye will do them good.

On the other hand, if your adolescent has difficulty falling asleep at a normal bedtime and waking up in time for school is a major production, get them out of bed at the same time every single day, even on weekends and holidays. Cruel as it may seem, keeping to a regular time of rising is a standard treatment for delayed sleep-wake phase disorder and letting them sleep in, even for one day, just lets the same sleep pattern continue, Brown said.

For more information about sleep disorders and their treatment, visit https://hsc.unm.edu/health/patient-care/sleep-medicine/