Skip to main content

Why do teens need so much sleep? Here’s what the experts say

While parents of younger children may struggle with early wake-ups, parents of teens can have the opposite problem: a teenage child who has to be dragged out of bed for school in the morning and sleeps past noon every weekend. Is your teen being lazy, or does he really need more sleep?

The experts are clear: teens really do need more sleep than adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get between 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night while recommending only 7 to 9 hours a night for adults. A John Hopkins pediatrician recommends that teens get 9 to 9 1/2 hours a night of sleep, which is an hour more than his guidelines for parents of 10-year-olds.

Brain development

Proper brain development is cited as one primary reason that teens need this extra sleep. For decades, scientists thought that brain development had concluded by puberty and that traits typically associated with teens, such as recklessness and impulsivity, could be attributed to hormones. Now researchers know that brains literally undergo a “remodel” during the teen years. While younger children’s brains store all information equally, the teenage brain undergoes a process of “pruning” in which information circuits that are unused are lost but more permanent connections between the remaining circuits start to develop. A fatty substance called myelin forms an insulating layer around nerves in the brain that facilitates those connections. Researchers have found that the process of forming myelin, called myelination, occurs during sleep. All this “remodeling” takes a lot of energy that simply isn’t being expended by the adult brain; thus, it’s a major factor in why teens need that extra sleep.

Sleep is also when the brain encodes memories. Academic success in high school often relies on a teen’s ability to memorize everything from historical dates to verb tenses in foreign languages. Teens who are getting enough sleep will have an easier time succeeding in high school than those who aren’t.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Physical development

Children often need more sleep when they are going through a growth spurt, and teens are no exception. Teen boys grow an average of three inches a year until they hit age 16, and girls grow an average of about three inches after the onset of puberty. Sufficient sleep is both necessary for teens to avoid having their growth stunted. Growth hormones are released during sleep, but growing is also hard work for a teen’s body. We think of growing as something that just happens without any effort, but most teens will need both extra calories and extra sleep during periods of intense physical growth.

Emotional regulation

Another reason that teens need sufficient sleep is emotional regulation. Sleep-deprived people of any age are more impulsive, less patient, and less able to resist unhealthy temptations than those who have gotten enough rest. In teens, the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that regulates decision-making and emotion, is not yet fully developed. It’s thus extra important that teens get proper rest. Some researchers have posited that many of the traits that are associated with teenagers, such as moodiness and recklessness, are actually the result of chronic sleep deprivation. Ensuring that teens get sufficient sleep may not completely eliminate behavior, as their brains still aren’t fully developed, but may substantially reduce it. Even the happiest teen is undergoing a time of intense stress, between the obligations of school, extracurriculars, work, friends, and family, and proper sleep also helps the body regulate cortisol, the stress hormone.

Upset teenage girl on cell phone
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Teenage sleep and the school day

Most high schools start between 7-8 am, yet most teens experience a “sleep phase delay” that makes it harder for their bodies to fall asleep before 11 pm. That problem is compounded by teens who may have trouble turning off their TV or phone for the night and turning in. Thus, a lot of the oversleeping that parents might see on weekends is just an attempt by the teenager’s body to repay her sleep debt accumulated because of a sleep schedule that’s out of sync with the demands of her school day.

In recognition of the importance of teenage sleep, some schools have begun pushing back their schedules so that the school day starts later. Because sleep is so crucial for a teen’s physical, mental, and emotional development, many parents are working hard to fight for school schedules that make sleep more of a priority. In addition to pressing schools to move back start times, parents can help teens get enough sleep by having firm curfews for phone and TV use, helping teens have a regular bedtime routine, and avoiding overloading their schedules.

Understanding the “why” behind your teen’s sleep habits can help you as a parent nurture his need for rest and his brain development, emotional development, and school success.

Editors' Recommendations

Sarah Jaffe
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Sarah Jaffe is a former lawyer and parenting writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and four-year-old…
What is the Ferber Method, and is sleep training safe for my baby?
Is sleep training using the Ferber Method right for your child? Learn more here
A baby awake in their crib in a sleep sack

One thing all new parents have in common is sleep deprivation. You can't really understand just how sleepless your nights, days, and everything in between can be with a new baby in the house until you're living it, but it doesn't take long to learn the hard way. Getting your baby to sleep can be a struggle, which is why many parents choose to sleep train their baby, often using something called the Ferber Method.
The Ferber Method is named for Richard Ferber, M.D., a pediatrician who created the method in the mid-80s and based his 1985 bestselling book,  on his methodology. If you've been struggling with sleep deprivation and are eager to get just a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, sleep training may be something to consider.

What is the Ferber Method?

Read more
Why do babies growl? Understanding your little one’s weird sounds
We'll help you navigate this little animal stage with your baby
Mom holding her baby up to her face.

There is no sweeter sound to a new parent than listening to their baby cooing and babbling. While you're waiting for those first words, those early squeals and giggles are simply delightful. With each sound, your little one is communicating with you even without saying their first official word. But have you ever sworn you've heard your baby sound more like an animal than a human? There are reasons why babies growl sometimes, and parents need the heads up.

If your baby has added growling to their language skills, you may be wondering why they chose to sound more feral than human. Turns out, it all depends on when and how they growl. Even though it might be unusual, it is pretty adorable to witness. Here’s how to decode why babies growl and what those noises mean.
Deciphering your baby's new sounds

Read more
Flying while pregnant? This is what you need to know
Know these guidelines about flying while you're with child
A family walking in an airport

Maybe you have to travel for work. Maybe you already had a vacation planned before finding out you were pregnant. However you got here, the reality is you're pregnant, and you have to get on a plane. Can you fly if you are pregnant, or is it on the list of no-no's, like soft cheese and deli meats? Whether you already booked that plane ticket or not, there are a few things about flying while pregnant to know. 
Traveling while pregnant
Let's break it down by trimester, so you know where you'll be when you take your trip.

First trimester travel
The first part of your pregnancy is usually OK to travel during. Most women don't start to show yet, feel pretty normal, and aren't physically restricted by a beach ball blocking everything they do. But there are two things to know if you fly in your first trimester.

Read more