Common Sleep Disorders for Teens

Daytime fatigue can be a sign that something bigger is going on. Read on to learn about common sleep disorders for teens.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Expert Insights from Dr. Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, MD, FCCP, a lung health specialist at PCSI, the largest integrated pulmonary and chest specialty group in Palm Beach County.

The teenage years are some of the busiest years of one’s life. They are packed full of social obligations, school, work, and extracurricular activities. During this same time, the body and mind are undergoing a ton of changes. Getting enough sleep is especially important during these adolescent years. Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience

  • Trouble focusing
  • Mood swings
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Illness
  • Apathy

Unfortunately, few teenagers prioritize sleep. And even those that do are often left struggling to find enough hours in the day. But for teenagers with sleep disorders, getting enough sleep and feeling well-rested is exceptionally hard.

“Many teenagers are lacking proper sleep. Between balancing a busy schedule and dismissing the importance of sleep, teenagers are in a position to experience many sleep problems,” says Dr. Peña-Hernández.

This begs the question: how can you tell if your teenager has a sleep disorder, and what can you do to help set them up for nighttime success?

Teens Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep

Whether due to lifestyle factors or a sleep disorder, the average teenager is not getting the sleep that they need to stay alert, happy, and healthy.

Teenagers need around 9 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night. On any given school day, the average student will need to wake up around 6:30 A.M. To get enough sleep, a teen with a 6:30 wakeup time would need to go to bed by 9:00 P.M.

Related: Why do we sleep

9:00 P.M. is not a realistic bedtime for teens. The most obvious factor here is lifestyle. With social obligations, sports, part-time jobs, school work, and other activities, many students aren’t finished with their daily grind by that time. And with distractions like television and social media, it’s no wonder that most teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived.

But there is another reason why this early bedtime is unrealistic, one that has to do with basic biology. Teenagers have a body clock (i.e., circadian rhythm) that is set later than that of young children or adults. During puberty, this biological clock shifts about two hours later. As a result, they often won’t become tired until 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. Trying to fall asleep before your body allows can be incredibly frustrating. It can feel like you have insomnia, when in reality, your bedtime is biologically infeasible.

“Teenagers may experience sleep issues related to puberty. During this time teenagers experience many hormonal changes that can lead to a natural shift in the circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Peña-Hernández.

That said, many teens could fall asleep much earlier than they do. There are the lucky ones whose classes start later who could get enough sleep if they changed their habits.

When lifestyle is responsible for the sleep-wake irregularities, it is known as inadequate sleep hygiene. Inadequate sleep hygiene contributors include

  • Excess light exposure at night
  • Late-night exercising
  • Caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs
  • Lack of a consistent sleep schedule
  • Distractions like television

It’s important to understand that while poor sleep hygiene is not itself a sleep disorder, it does result in disordered sleep. Whether the cause of insufficient sleep is a sleep disorder or lifestyle based, the negative effects are similar.

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most obvious result of sleep deprivation. Sleepiness is the result of diminished daytime alertness. The definition of alertness is “the inherent ability of the brain to sustain attention and wakefulness with little or no external stimulation.” When you read through this definition carefully, you notice the reference to attention. Impaired attention is one of the key signs that your child is not getting enough sleep.

Another common effect of poor sleep is impaired mood and motivation. This can present as general moodiness and apathy, or, more seriously, depression or other mood disorders.

Related: How sleep works

And if the health, happiness, and performance detriments caused by inadequate sleep weren’t enough, extreme fatigue can be dangerous. This is especially true for teenagers who drive. Drowsy driving combined with inexperience behind the wheel can be a deadly combination.

Unfortunately, trouble focusing, a depressed mood, and lack of motivation are commonly misdiagnosed. Some teens are diagnosed with disorders like ADD or ADHD when the cause of these symptoms is insufficient sleep. Without a correct diagnosis, proper treatment is difficult.

Signs that Your Teen May Have a Sleep Disorder

Because most teens struggle with chronic sleep deprivation, it can be tough to tell the difference between an actual sleep disorder or lifestyle-induced sleep troubles.

There are a few things that you and your family can do to identify the cause. These include knowing what the common sleep disorders look like and using lifestyle changes to try and rule out run-of-the-mill sleep deprivation.

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that results in an inability to get enough air during sleep. Soft tissues block the airway, resulting in snoring and frequent waking to allow for breathing. If your child snores loudly, it would be a good idea to have them examined by their doctor to be tested for sleep apnea.

2. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Restless leg syndrome is a disorder where a creepy, crawly feeling is experienced in the legs or arms when lying down. RLS symptoms are often overlooked during adolescence because discomfort in the limbs is common as teens grow. But if your teen complains about a weird feeling in their legs and moves them around at night, they may have RLS.

3. Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a condition marked by excessive daytime fatigue and fragmented sleep. Teens with narcolepsy may suffer from vivid hallucinations when they fall asleep. They can also experience sleep paralysis. When awake, some people with narcolepsy will have a sudden weakening of muscles during times of emotional extremes.

4. Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Older children and teenagers can experience an abnormality in their biological clock that results in their being unable to fall asleep before the early morning hours. These teens would be able to get proper sleep if they could go to bed late each night and sleep in each morning, but our current way of life does not allow this. Boys are more likely to experience delayed sleep phase syndrome than girls are.

5. Depression

Psychiatric disorders like depression and their relation to sleep are tricky. Sometimes depression can cause insomnia, and sometimes poor sleep can result in depression. If your teen is depressed, it is important that you visit their physician.

 6. Insomnia

Insomnia is a condition marked by an inability to sleep well during the night. This can involve trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Insomnia can be a sleep disorder itself, or it can be a sign of other sleep disorders or poor sleep hygiene.

Related: How to cure insomnia without medication

How to Address Poor Sleep Hygiene

Having a proper sleep routine is the first step to attaining regular, restful sleep. This is true whether your child has a sleep disorder or is struggling with lifestyle-related sleep difficulties.

Follow these 7 tips to help your teen sleep better:

  1. Set a Schedule: Adults and adolescents alike do best when they go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Remember that most teens need to sleep 9 or more hours each night. When creating a sleep schedule, only allow your teen to sleep two hours later on the weekends.
  2. Wind Down 1 Hour Before Bed: To give the body and mind time to transition from a waking state to a sleeping state, eliminate the use of electronic devices before bed. These devices harm sleep through excess stimulation and light exposure. Be sure that phones are on do not disturb during sleeping hours.
  3. Shower at Night: Have your kids shower or bathe at night. Elevating body temperature in a bath or shower an hour before sleep encourages melatonin release. This hormone can help your teenager fall asleep.
  4. Set Up the Bedroom: Ensure that your kid’s sleeping space is set up properly. The mattress, pillows, and sheets should be comfortable. There should be little to no light or noise pollution. Lastly, it should be cool, around 66 degrees.
  5. Control Substances: Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs can make it hard to sleep.
  6. Exercise—But Not Before Bed: Exercise supports healthy sleep, but exercise too close to bedtime can cause insomnia. Do not allow your teen to exercise within two hours of bedtime.
  7. Eat a Well-Balanced Diet: Nutrition and health play a significant role in sleep and overall wellbeing. Encourage your teen to eat plenty of whole foods, particularly plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Nutritional deficiencies or obesity can exacerbate some sleep disorders.

When Should You Visit Your Doctor?

If you are concerned about your teen’s wellbeing, it is a good idea to visit the doctor. It is particularly important to do so if you notice any tell-tale signs of a sleep disorder, or if your teen cannot get a good night’s rest in spite of the above lifestyle changes.

Related: Sleep test report discussions

Your doctor may decide that your child would benefit from a visit with a sleep specialist. These visits can include overnight stays in a laboratory where your child is monitored while they sleep. The data received offers valuable insights into what is causing trouble sleeping.

How Are Sleep Disorders Treated?

Treatment varies based on the diagnosis. Lifestyle changes like those outlined above are generally one part of treatment. Without the right foundation, pharmaceuticals and other measures may not be effective.

Sleep disorders can be treated with surgery, bright light therapy, pharmaceutical medications, over the counter sleep aids, and nutritional supplements. For some, talk therapy may offer relief from mood troubles that can cause or be caused by sleep disturbances.

Closing Thoughts

“At this transformational point in a person’s life, teenagers should take their sleep seriously and develop healthy sleeping patterns to protect their health in the future,” says Dr. Peña-Hernández.

For some teens, being sleepy during the day is indicative of more than poor sleep habits. When you find that sleep problems persist in spite of lifestyle changes, it may be time to speak with your teen’s doctor. They can help you identify any underlying medical conditions that negatively impact their health and quality of life.

Dr Luis Pena-Hernandez

Expert Bio

Dr. Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, MD, FCCP, is a lung health specialist at PCSI, the largest integrated pulmonary and chest specialty group in Palm Beach County. His areas of expertise include asthma and immunotherapy, COPD, lung cancer, and invasive diagnostic techniques in pulmonary medicine including endo-bronchial ultrasound and diagnostic bronchoscopy. He is also one of the few experts in cardiopulmonary exercise testing and exercise physiology in Palm Beach County.

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