DEAR KELLY: I’m a junior high student and a pretty good student with honors classes and good grades. My problem is that I’m a horrible sleeper. It takes me forever to fall asleep at night, then sometimes I wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep, so I’m tired in the middle of the day. I have cross country after school, so by the time I get home, I’m exhausted. Then I have to do homework and eat dinner. There’s no time for anything else. This whole no-sleep thing is killing me and I’m dragging all the time. I’m starting to feel depressed, and wonder if my lack of sleep has anything to do with it. On weekends, all my friends say they sleep in until noon or 1 p.m., but not me. I’m still awake early and still can’t sleep.
What advice do you give for someone who can’t sleep?
I caution you against just taking a sleep aid until it is prescribed by a physician. But before you start taking anything, a trip to see your family doctor should be your first step. Tell your doctor what is happening with your sleep and, hopefully, they can do a physical and run some simple blood tests to make sure everything internally is OK with you. After that, they can lead you in the direction you need to go based on the results.
Most teens like to stay up late – it seems to be a common theme. Late-night TV, social media surfing and texting friends are common causes for teenagers to be up late, but there’s more to it than that. Researchers believe that teens are “pre-programmed” to fall asleep late and get up late, unlike adults and younger kids who can fall asleep early and get up early. Some think teens need more hormones for growth, and growth hormones are made during sleep. With school starting early and your schedule being so tight, your body may be struggling to adjust to the biological clock you have and your sleep cycle is confused and off balance.
One of the first factors that can make it difficult to fall asleep is feeling stressed and overwhelmed. When this happens, it can be hard for our brains to turn off because you are still processing everything and relaxing enough to fall asleep is difficult. Having honors classes means you probably have a fairly tough schedule and adding an after-school activity makes me wonder how much down time you get.
When you don’t allow yourself to relax a little before you try to go to sleep, it’s impossible to fall asleep right away. Our bodies need to wind down before we can fall asleep. If your brain is still on “go” when you lay your head down, it’s difficult to shut everything down enough to drift to sleep.
Take a hot shower about two hours before you want to fall asleep and stop drinking anything with caffeine at least four to six hours before. Try and make your room a quiet place where you can relax. If your room is a disheveled mess and stinks with food wrappers or dirty clothes, it’s difficult to find peace there. At the very least, clean off your bed and give yourself a comfortable place to lay down.
Try going to sleep around the same time each night. Screen time, such as playing on your computer or phone or watching TV, can stop your brain from resting and keep you awake. Even if you aren’t a reader, get a boring book and try reading a chapter or two each night. See if this helps you unwind and slowly start shutting down before you try to shut your eyes.
If you are waking up because you have to go to the bathroom, try limiting your liquids a few hours before bed. If you get hungry before bed, try eating high carbs before bed. In the book “Smart Cookies Don’t Get Stale,” they suggest foods like pretzels, cereal, graham crackers, fresh fruit, dried fruit, fruit juice, vanilla wafers, saltines, popcorn, or toast with jam or jelly. Those foods make you feel sleepy and warm and are easy to digest before bed.
Many people find hot tea like “Sleepy Time” helpful or a glass of warm milk helpful. Some people use relaxation or mediation tapes to fall asleep. Others need complete darkness in their room. Make sure your room temperature is good and you aren’t too hot or too cold. Test out different things to see if anything is helpful to you.
If nothing else works and you still can’t sleep, talk to your doctor to see if he or she recommends something to help you sleep. Being sleep-deprived can affect your mood, your grades and relationships with others, so it’s not something you should take lightly. Getting a good night’s sleep is important to you as a student, an athlete and a growing teenager.