Can Teens Be Cured of Sleep Deprivation?


My kids - ages 6, 3, and 1 - get at least 11 hours of sleep a night. Plus naps, as needed. They usually wake up on their own and hardly ever complain of being tired (unless there are chores they don't want to do). They are energetic and excited about life, and they don't seem to give sleep much thought. 

My husband and I, on the other hand, are lucky to squeeze in 7 hours a night. And while we exercise and eat well, we are tired. A lot. We're constantly telling ourselves we've got to get to bed earlier. We trade off taking naps on the weekends. But we can feel the fog of sleep deprivation we're swimming through, and though we are getting by, sometimes it feels like we're just getting by. Going to bed is something we look forward to all day, but somehow rarely get there before midnight. 

 So what's the difference between us and them? I mean, besides the fact that we have work to do, responsibilities to fulfill, and a family to run and they don't? Perhaps it is this: their sleep habits have not yet been corrupted. They haven't yet been given piles of homework to do on top of part-time jobs, social interaction, household responsibilities, extra-curricular activities and the community involvement expected from you if you want to get into a good college. 

In short, they haven't yet been teenagers.

My current sleep habits most likely have their roots in that time of my life. School started early (7:40am), but when I was dismissed at 2:20pm, the day was still very young. I had music lessons to attend, homework to do, sandwiches to make at a local deli - which is where I got the money to pay for dates, dance tickets and entry into sporting events (after I put some away for college). I would sometimes stay up until 2:00am finishing papers or studying for tests, then be up at 6:30am to get ready for school.

 I was hardly alone then and adolescents today are no different. Sleep deprivation among teens has been said to be an "epidemic" and the consequences range from decreased alertness and cognitive impairment to obesity and depression. Teenagers - who should be getting at least 9 hours of sleep a night to help their growing bodies and developing brains - are, instead, developing habits that can lead to a lifetime of sleep deprivation.


But how do you fight sleep deprivation? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are trying to find out by undertaking the largest adolescent sleep study to date to determine if sleep deprivation can be cured through behavioral changes alone - and what behaviors are most effective in helping teens sleep more.

 The study, which will be done over 4 years, will give hundreds of teens the chance to learn habits to help them sleep better. They'll also have the chance to work with coaches to practice those habits. At intervals, the teens will be monitored for hormone levels and sleeping patterns. 

 By the end of the study, the researchers hope to know more about how to encourage better sleep habits by targeting behaviors rather than by reaching for sleeping pills. 

 I'll be keeping my eye out for the results of the project. It may be a bit difficult for me to implement new behaviors to help me get more sleep, but it won't be too late for my kids. Maybe I'll be able to help them navigate those sleep-depriving years of adolescence without their habits being corrupted in the first place.