THE BLOG
04/04/2014 06:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2014

Let Your Teenager Sleep -- the Brain Needs It

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Monashee Frantz via Getty Images

It's easy to think of sleep as a rude interruption. Who wouldn't love to reclaim those seemingly lost hours in the name of productivity? Your house would be immaculate. Your email inbox would be empty. And you could finally finish reading that novel you're only halfway through.

But if you're a regular reader of this site, you know that sleep might very well be the most important part of our day. Studies show that adequate sleep supports our physical and mental health as well as our ability to learn and recall information.

What is true for adults is doubly true for teenagers, who are undergoing a period of concentrated learning and rapid biological change.

The More Teens Learn, the More Sleep They Need

In an experiment at Harvard Medical School and Trent University, for example, students were taught a complex new game and then told to "sleep on it." Students who had a good night sleep performed significantly better the next day, while students who slept six hours or less failed to improve or performed worse than before.

Another study at Brigham and Women's Hospital demonstrates that chronic sleep deprivation interferes with our ability to focus as well as task performance. The effects become even more pronounced after dark, the hours that teenagers are typically completing homework.

Why is sleep so important for learning? A new hypothesis published in Scientific American suggests that sleep helps the brain sort all of the trivia from the day from what is important to remember. As learning increases, so does the brain's need for sleep. In fact, without enough sleep, the areas where the most intense learning has occurred will shut down, even as the rest of the brain is alert.

Boost Your Teen's Learning Retention with Better Sleep Hygiene

Adequate sleep is a non-negotiable for effective learning. Yet many teenagers skimp on it. Part of this is biological -- melatonin, the sleep hormone, is released later at night in adolescents -- but there are a number of factors you can influence as a parent.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Go dark. Even a small amount of light can disrupt your teen's internal clock, so it's best to remove night lights and glowing electronic devices from the room. At the very least, turn the light away from you. Some teens may also find it helpful to sleep with an eye mask.
  • Keep your cool. The body's temperature drops to its lowest point during sleep. You can mimic this shift by keeping your teen's bedroom between 60 and 68 degrees and by avoiding rigorous exercise late in the evening.
  • Schedule it. Going to bed and getting up around the same time every day -- including weekends -- does wonders for the body's internal clock, as does a bedtime routine. Encourage your teen to end each day with deep breathing or listening to soft music to release tension and calm the mind.
  • Wind down, not up. Try turning off the TV and computer an hour before bed. The bright light and engaging content increases heart rate and perspiration, even as it decreases melatonin production. The same is true for texting in bed. Your teen will fall asleep much faster without these stimulants.

It's easy for teen's to forgo sleep because they have so many things competing for their time and attention, including homework, social functions and after-school activities. However, teens will ultimately function better in all of these areas -- and especially in school -- when they make time for adequate rest.

So go ahead, let your teenager sleep. The brain really does need it.