Yawn ... school year means change in sleep patterns

Sara Browning

Fifteen-year-old Matt LaMarca of Springfield, Ill., says he usually goes to bed at a "reasonable hour" during the school year.

But during the summer, Matt says staying up late becomes habitual if he's "with a friend, watching TV or doing something on the computer. He calls the latter activities "easy distractions."

During the summer, if he goes to bed as late as 3 a.m., he has the luxury of being able to stay in bed until between 10 a.m. and noon.

But with a new school year starting next week, the student has to be in class by 8:24 a.m. That means getting up between 6:30 and 7 a.m., and going to bed between 10 p.m. and midnight - a significant time shift from his summer schedule.

Getting back into the school year swing of things - which for some teens may mean finding that misplaced alarm clock - can be a challenging adjustment for young people whose bodies must become re-accustomed to a new schedule.

Teens, "tweens" and younger children who have gone without early summer bedtimes may need parents to start setting ground rules as the new school year approaches. While they're at it, parents should see if there's anything they can do to improve their child's sleep habits.

Early to bed, early to rise

A good night's sleep is a must for busy teens with hectic school schedules and after-school sports. Matt says he needs "at least eight hours of sleep" to perform well in school.

Dr. Nichole Mirocha, assistant professor and assistant director of the Osteopathic Residency Program at Southern Illinois University Family Medicine, says going to bed early is something parents should emphasize daily.

"What's important is keeping a pattern with kids. Spend time doing a quiet activity, and continue this pattern each night."

According to WebMD, parents might encourage their kids to pick out a favorite bedtime story or play a board game as a way of quieting the house before bed.

Parents can also hold discussions with children about things that happened during the day.

Discussions will help them deal with feelings of anxiety or stress so negative emotions are not bottled up at bedtime. Anxiety and stress are one of the leading causes of insomnia for children and adults alike, according to WebMD.

Children who watch television, play games or work on the computer during the evening may benefit from "counting down" until bedtime. Parents should let children know that bedtime is in 20 minutes in order to give kids a chance to wind down. Teens who need to get to bed early should avoid keeping televisions, computers and other distractions in their rooms.

"Teens and adults won't be tired if music and TVs are blaring," Mirocha says. "Stimulation from text messages and e-mails does not quiet your mind for sleep."

Matt says disciplining himself in preparation for a new school year is difficult.

"A week before school starts, I'll gradually start going to bed one or two hours earlier. But even if I try to go to bed early sometimes, it'll take me a long time to fall asleep," he said.

When sleep isn't enough

While a lack of sleep may cause young people to feel tired, Mirocha says fatigue is more severe than somnolence, the medical term for sleepiness.

"Fatigue overwhelms the whole body and mind. You feel drained. Fatigue won't be resolved with a nap," she said.

For some individuals, fatigue is a way of life, even if they get effective sleep.

Severe health conditions may be at the root of persistent fatigue. According to WebMD, undiagnosed diabetes, anemia, kidney disease, coronary disease, urinary tract infection (UTI), dehydration, heart disease, hyperthyroidism and depression are all major causes of fatigue.

Mirocha says most of her patients who complain about feeling tired are between ages 20 and 30.

"Adults and adolescents who don't feel rested may be receiving sleep that is not effective - meaning sleep that is not deep and uninterrupted," she said.

Sleep disorders are also becoming more common, Mirocha said.

"Sleep apnea causes a person to stop breathing in his or her sleep. This condition can be very hard on the heart if left untreated," she said.

Narcolepsy causes individuals to fall asleep extremely easily due to an uncontrolled ability to stay awake. "One minute you're awake, and the next minute you're asleep and you don't even realize it," Mirocha said, noting that the disorder is especially dangerous for people when driving.

People who suffer from excessive tiredness may be diagnosed in inpatient and outpatient sleep labs, Mirocha said. "We hook patients up to monitors and test their sleep cycles. These tests allow doctors to pinpoint particular medical conditions," she said.

According to HelpGuide.org, doctors usually use a combination of medications to help a person improve sleep, or to improve cognition and energy in the morning.

Mirocha does not recommend taking over-the-counter drugs to alleviate conditions that cause sleep disorders because the medications can aggravate the symptoms. She also recommends seeing a doctor if you feel tired daily, even after a good night's sleep.

How much sleep is enough?

Adults, teens and children need different amounts of sleep each day.

    * Ages 3-5: 11-13 hours

    * Ages 7-12: 10-11 hours

    * Teenagers: 8 1/2-10 hours

    * Ages 18 and up: 7-9 hours.

SOURCES: HelpGuide.org, WebMD.com