Sleep for Children & Teenagers

Why Sleep is Important

Humans spend about one-third of their life asleep. Sleep is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing. Despite people thinking of sleep as a time of rest, a lot of important activity occurs in the brain and body during sleep. The quality of the one-third of our lives spent asleep, greatly influences the quality of the two-thirds we are awake. Without adequate sleep our health, resilience and performance is greatly impacted.

Good Quality Sleep Helps:

  • Learning, memory and concentration
  • Support our emotional health and wellbeing
  • Positive behaviour and decision making
  • Improves energy levels and promotes healthy growth, metabolism and immune system

Sleep requirements do not change much from primary school age to teens however there is one change that does occur. The hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy, is secreted later at night during puberty than in children and adults. This delay temporarily resets their circadian rhythm (which is like an internal biological clock). This means that your teen will want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning. A guide for amounts of sleep required by age is included below.

Amount of Sleep Required

Over 30% of primary school children and 70% of teenagers are sleep deprived. In fact as a group Australian adolescents rank as the third most sleep deprived in the world. Dr Chris Seton from the Sleepshack says the best way to judge how much sleep a child needs is to assess whether it’s “enough for them to wake spontaneously – meaning without an alarm clock – on most mornings and avoid tiredness during the day at least until the last hour before bedtime”.

A guide to hours of sleep/ night:

  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old) : 10-13hrs
  • School Aged Children (6-13years old) : 9-11 hrs
  • Teens (14-17 years old) : 8-10 hrs
For more on sleep needs across the entire lifespan visit: The Sleep Health Foundation- Sleep Needs Across The Lifespan

Signs that Children are Tired

Signs that children are tired are often overlooked or misinterpreted. The signs and the subsequent effects, fall under four areas: habits, physical/biological causes and psychological causes.


Learning & Memory, Attention, Problem Solving

Good sleep helps concentration and motivation along with consolidation and strengthening of new information and memories. When your child is tired they have difficulty focusing on activities and processing new information. Without a good night’s sleep, the brain struggles to consolidate each day’s learning and retain memory. Teachers report poor short-term memory in tired children, that is, teachings go “in one ear and out the other”.


Body Systems

Sleep deprivation affects children’s physical growth, immune system and plays a key role in weight gain. You may notice effects related to these areas, along with an increase in headaches and darkness under their eyes.


Mood, Emotional and Mental Health

Children and Teenagers who are sleep deprived have trouble managing emotions. They may have mood swings and seem irritable, anxious or depressed. They are more likely to suffer from negative body image and low self-esteem.


Behaviour, Lifestyle, Relationships and Decision Making

Sleep deprivation affects decision making capacity and has a negative effect on relationships. The effects on certain parts of the brain also results in increased clumsiness and risk of accidents.

Most of the population lack energy when they don’t get enough sleep. Paradoxically younger children can exhibit symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), becoming excitable, hyperactive, disagreeable and engaging in extreme behaviours like tantrums or aggression. Unfortunately it’s not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, when the real culprit is chronic sleep deprivation

Increased stimulant use – to deal with tiredness and drowsiness caused by sleep deprivation, some teenagers use alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and some illicit stimulant drugs which can make things worse.

Sleep Thieves: Why Are Children & Teenagers Tired?

Causes for insufficient hours of quality sleep in children and teenagers fall under 3 areas: habits, physical/biological causes and psychological causes.


Boy on phone in bed

Many of these habits are influenced by a lack of understanding of the importance of sleep. This combined with a busy lifestyles and the drive to be socially connected means sleep becomes undervalued and a low priority.

  • Irregular weekly bedtimes and weekend sleep ins: This confuses the body clock. Sleeping in particularly on Sunday starts the school week off on a bad note.
  • Sensory overload/multitasking: Flicking between homework, technology etc creates a wired inefficient brain that finds it hard to wind down and go to sleep
  • Electronic Devices too close to bedtime and/or wake you over night: The blue light emitted from the devices inhibits the hormone melatonin that helps us sleep. Adding to this the device content excites the brain making it hard to go to sleep.
    Being woken messes with the natural sleep cycles.
  • Studying too late: Tired brains are slow and inefficient. This creates the cycle of taking longer to do homework, which delays bedtime further.
  • Exercise too close to bedtime: raises body temperature and cortisol levels making it harder for some people to fall asleep soon afterwards
  • Poor bed association: Using technology and doing other activities in/on bed leads to mixed messages to the brain that bed is for restful sleep
  • Stimulant use: caffeine, energy drinks, alcohol, drugs all impact on sleep quality

Physical / Biological

Girl on computer at night
  • Blue light effect from screens – reduces the hormone melatonin that helps us sleep. This encourages the brain to wake up instead of going to sleep
  • Changes in Circadian Rhythm (Body Clock) – The hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep, is secreted later during puberty than in children and adults This delay temporarily resets their circadian rhythm (which is like an internal biological clock). This means that your teen will want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning
  • Sleep disorders – eg : DSPS, Snoring and Obstructive Sleep Apnea. See below for further explanation
  • Health problems and Medications
  • Physical Environment – Environmental factors negatively impacting sleep such as temperature, light, noise


Fear of Missing Out

2 Key Cycles at Play:

  1. Cycle of: Stress – insufficient sleep
  2. Cycle of: Electronic devices – insufficient sleep
  • FOMO (fear of missing out): The craving to maintain social connectivity leads to reduced sleep hours and even being woken throughout the night
  • Electronic Device Addiction: This screen times takes away from sleep time. Added to this the device content excites the brain together with the blue light inhibiting the hormone melatonin that helps us sleep. A vicious cycle is created as the more wakeful they are the more activity they do to fill in time
  • Infomania: The obsessive need for information and the need to constantly checking texts, e-mails, social-networking websites
  • Stress: caused by pressures such school performance, family situations, bullying
  • Anxiety and depression: can lead to a vicious cycle of – sleeplessness – anxiety/depression
  • Brains That Don’t Switch Off: Tired but wired
  • Psychological insomnia: see common sleep problems for more information.
  • Sleep anxiety: worrying, “Will I sleep tonight,” “If I can’t sleep I won’t cope tomorrow.” Worrying about sleep makes it even harder to sleep. Kids end up in a downward spiral of worry about sleep and sleeplessness.
  • Staying in bed feeling stressed or depressed: conditions the bed as a place of arousal.
  • Putting everything in the sleep basket: “Everything would be better if only I slept”. How you feel of a day isn’t always about how much sleep you’ve had. Even if you improve your sleep there may still be challenges that need fixing.
  • Sometimes sleeplessness works: Sleeping the day away to avoid stuff you don’t want to deal with? Sleep problems sometimes mean that you get out of things, less expectations are placed on you, or people are sympathetic toward you.

Extra Common Sleep Problems

  • Insufficient sleep – This is the most common sleep problem influenced by lack of understanding of the importance of sleep and hours required for optimal functioning. This combined with a busy lifestyles and the drive to be socially connected means sleep becomes undervalued and a low priority. Together this means children are simply not getting to enough sleep for optimal physical and mental health.
  • Psychological Insomnia – One of the most common sleep problems reported by adolescents involve insomnia. This involves difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, waking up too early and non-restorative sleep causing significant distress or impairment. The cause is often anxiety, depression or stress. Or it could be that they cannot switch off their brain from thinking and let go of the day.
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPS) – Also known as “late body clock” or “night owl”. This can be generally defined when the teen‘s sleep is delayed by more than 2 hrs of the desired time. They have difficulties getting to sleep, being more awake late at night and sleepy in the morning. This creates difficulties getting up at the appropriate time in the morning and they may describe feeling permanently jetlagged. This body clock preference in adolescence is a mix of biological factors, further exacerbated by lack of parental monitoring, academic and social pressures and the use of electronic devices.
  • Snoring and OSA – Loud and regular nightly snoring is often abnormal in otherwise healthy children. Sometimes it is a sign of a respiratory infection, a stuffy nose or allergy. In more serious cases it can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is caused by an obstruction of airflow when breathing, causing a lack of adequate oxygen supply to the brain. In children this is most commonly due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Being obese can also increase your child’s risk of snoring or obstructive sleep. Other risk factors related to sleep-disordered breathing are a small jaw or small airway, a family history of sleep apnea or a history of wheeze or cough at night. While most children with OSA snore, some do not. Others signs to look for are blocked nose/mouth breathing, cross bite, overbite. For more on signs and symptoms and the effects on behaviour and learning visit Kids Sleep Apnea
Additional information on other sleep problems in children and teens can be found at: Sleep Health Foundation-Children.
For information on where to get professional help for sleep problems in children and teens visit: Professional Help