Helping Teens Make Peace with Sleep Late-night online chats with friends can make for rough mornings, and can eventually take a toll on a teen's health. Dr. Helene Emsellem offers advice for night-owl teens.
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Helping Teens Make Peace with Sleep

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Helping Teens Make Peace with Sleep

Helping Teens Make Peace with Sleep

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And in Your Health today, sleepy teens. We have two reports coming up on teens and sleep depravation. Some school districts have adopted later morning start times to deal with it.

First, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how one sleep doctor helps adolescence improve their sleep habits.

ALLISON AUBREY: If 16-year-old Sari Meltzer had her way, she'd sleep in until noon. But on school days, her quack radio goes off before dawn. We caught up with her one recent morning as she coaxed herself out of bed at 6:45.

Ms. SARI MELTZER: I'd just rather just turnover and stay here and be a little late to school than get up right away.

AUBREY: Morning is a struggle in part, because like lots of teens, Sari has trouble winding down at night. There's homework to do and friends to connect with by phone, by e-mail, by instant messaging and through online networks, such as one called Facebook, where Sari says it's easy to lose track of time.

Ms. MELTZER: I'll go online. I'll be like, okay. I'm going to go on for like 10 minutes and then I'm going to shower and it'll be like 6:00, maybe. And then, I'll look at the clock and what seems like 10 minutes later, it's already 7:00. I don't know what's got - what's happened and all. And also, my camp friends and I e-mail each other. So, I was e-mailing my camp friends last night and talking online and going on Facebook.

AUBREY: So, by the time that you look at the clock and you thought about getting to bed, what time was it?

Ms. MELTZER: It was actually still pretty early. It was 10 something.

AUBREY: Later than she'd planned, but not too far off the mark. Sari says she's much more mindful of sleep these days. Two years ago, when she began having trouble falling asleep before midnight or 1 in the morning, her mother took her to see sleep physician, Helene Emsellem.

Dr. HELENE EMSELLEM (Sleep Physician): My practice taking care of teens increased mostly as my own children became teenagers.

AUBREY: And she watched first-hand major shifts in their sleep-wake schedules. Research studies have documented that two-thirds of teenagers experience this shifting of the internal clock toward much later sleep times. Emsellem says our 24-hour culture makes it worse.

Dr. EMSELLEM: What we've seen happen, as we have more and more ways to stay connected at night, I think we've seen an exaggeration of the night-owlism that we see in teenagers.

AUBREY: To fight back, Emsellem urges her patients to take TVs and computers out of teens' bedrooms, which is easier said than done. So, she encourages a strict turn-off time, with the exception of music-players.

Dr. EMSELLEM: And a lot of times, teens will tell me, I get in bed but I can't fall asleep. So I hate getting in bed. And I would try to change that process around. I think mp3 players are great for this. I encourage teens to listen to their music at night, to try to make themselves a playlist that's soothing.

AUBREY: And keep the volume down low.

Emsellem recommends a bunch of other changes that range from removing clutter from bedrooms and painting walls relaxing colors, to helping teenagers organize homework schedules so they're not as stressed out.

But tips like these may only work once teens believe there's really something to be gained from sleeping more. So, Emsellem tells her patients that sleeping is almost a form of studying.

Dr. EMSELLEM: If you get eight hours of sleep, and as teens need nine and a quarter hours of sleep, after you've learned things during the day without ever opening a book again, you will score better on a test of the material than you did at the end of the lecture.

AUBREY: That's because your brain replays the information and consolidates it into memories as you sleep.

For teenage patients who try hard but still need extra help getting more sleep, Emsellem has two recommendations.

Dr. EMSELLEM: Exaggerating light in the morning to reinforce the circadian signal of light to the brain, to tell it that's it's the wake up time, is a very powerful tool.

AUBREY: Sari Melzter wears a visor with two bright lights Velcroed into the brim for about 20 minutes every morning as she's getting ready for school.

Ms. MELTZER: My mind feels like I'm more awake. I don't know if it actually is or if it's just the mind kind of process. But I do feel more awake after it.

AUBREY: Then, at the of the day, in order to power-down, Helene Emsellem told Sari to take an over-the-counter melatonin pill.

Ms. MELTZER: I have an alarm on my watch, so it beeps and I take it.

AUBREY: Emsellem says melatonin sometimes helps. It signals the brain to turn off alertness. A small dose taken six hours before bedtime seems to work best.

Ms. MELTZER: Yeah. I definitely am falling asleep easier.

AUBREY: Especially on weeknights. The challenge for some comes on the weekends, when good sleep habits give way to typical teen life. Staying up well past midnight. Emsellem says this puts many parents of teens in a bind.

Dr. EMSELLE: You really almost feel like you're a criminal if you wake them up before 11:00 because you know they're exhausted.

AUBREY: But if you don't, they'll likely fall back to a late night routine, making Monday mornings even tougher.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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