Doctors Say Let Teens Sleep, Start School Later

Good news for middle and high school students. When it comes to sleeping in a little longer, physicians are on your side.

On Monday, the American Academy Pediatrics  announced its recommendation that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. “Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty,” the AAP writes in a press release regarding its new policy statement called “School Start Times for Adolescents.” 

“An estimated 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. currently have a start time before 8 a.m.; only 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier,” according to the AAP.

Many parents of teens joke that their kids would never get out of bed if it were up to them, but getting the right amount of sleep is no laughing matter.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” according to Judith Owens, M.D., director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC, and lead author of the policy statement, published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” Owens said in the press release. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

Even before the AAP’s announcement school districts across the country have been rethinking start times. Earlier this year The New York Times wrote about the issue and profiled the plight of Jilly Dos Santos, a student at Rock Bridge High School, in Columbia, Missouri. When Dos Santos learned that school officials were contemplating starting school at 7:20 a.m. (30 minutes earlier than the existing 7:50 am start time), she became an unlikely sleep activist. The student rallied others to her cause and she educated herself about the science of sleep. Ultimately, school officials decided against the earlier start time. And a few months later the school actually moved the start time ahead to 9 a.m., according to the article.

One of the organizations that Dos Santos reached out to for help was Start School Later, a nonprofit organization based in Annapolis, Maryland, that focuses on getting public schools to set “healthy school hours.” 

“It’s going to take collective action, perhaps on a national scale, to get many districts to take on this issue,” Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, the executive director and co-founder of Start School Later, told Yahoo Health. 

“The science is clear; the will to change isn’t,” she explained. “The reason for that is that community life revolves around school schedules, and any suggestion of change - earlier, later, whatever - inevitably brings powerful opposition from everyone who fears a change in routine.”

Ziporyn Snider pointed out that many school districts have “found feasible and affordable” ways to push back start times. She recommends that anyone interested in learning more about later school start times to check out the success stories posted on the organization’s website. For information about how to start a local chapter, look here.