By Jean Munoz Keese

Getting quality sleep is crucial for the development of our youth. It also helps with mood, academic performance, and overall well-being. Without proper sleep, we just don’t feel our best. 

But, regionally, 3 out of 4 youth tell us they have trouble with healthy sleeping habits and are often tired or have little energy. *

This comes as no surprise.

Evening routines are often crammed with homework, extracurriculars, and social activities.

An early school day doesn’t help. In fact, it works against your teen’s natural biological rhythms. 

Is your teen grumpy in the morning? 

Here is why:

  • Your teens’ circadian rhythm requires that they get 9-10 hours of sleep each night. And, while toddlers are easy to put down at 7 p.m., a teen won’t be tired until 11 p.m. So, an earlier bedtime doesn’t work.
  • The early wake-up time disrupts R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) sleep, or dream sleep. So not only are they unable to fall asleep early, but they are also missing out on that important R.E.M. sleep, making them moody and depressed.

“Good sleep, particularly morning R.E.M. sleep, is a foundation for mental health. No wonder teens are grouchy in the morning, we are shortening their sleep,” says Dr. Dan Ostermiller, an expert in healthy sleep and Integrative Medicine. 

What is the solution? 

According to Ostermiller, the answer is a later school start time. 

According to Ostermiller, “a later school start time better aligns with a teen’s natural circadian rhythms. Research shows a later school start time improves academic performance and mental health. It reduces absenteeism and tardiness, there is less falling asleep in class and few motor vehicle accidents.”

Not only does better sleep support better academic performance. It boosts athletic performance.

“If you want a better-performing athlete, give them better sleep,” says Ostermiller.

According to Ostermiller, later school start times have been successfully implemented in places like Seattle. In Seattle, teens increased their sleep by more than 30 minutes, and their academic scores improved, when later school start times were implemented.

How do we do this in the West Central Mountain Region?

It won’t be easy. It has taken some communities up to a year to implement a new start time. 

“Valley County is the right place to do this. Our community has been first in doing a lot of things. Maybe this is one more – and we could be leaders in Idaho in promoting better sleep, and better overall health for our teens,” said Ostermiller.

A later school start time will likely cause short-term challenges to our excellent and hardworking districts. Change may also pose challenges to families who are used to early start times. But, if we are serious about improving the mental and physical wellness of our youth, we should take this issue seriously and do what we can to fix it.

Until this happens? There are things you as a parent can do to support your teen in healthier sleep routines.

Create A Consistent Sleep Schedule

When it comes to healthy sleep habits, consider the following: 

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, maximizing sleep opportunity with the goal of getting 9-10 hours of sleep.
  • Stick to regular bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends, to regulate the internal body clock and promote natural sleep cycles.

By prioritizing a consistent schedule, your teens will optimize their sleep and be more rested.

Sleep-Friendly & Screen Free Environment  

A sleep-friendly environment is essential for healthy sleep, relaxation, and rest. What does this mean? 

  • Keep screens, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, out of the bedroom. Screen use interferes with circadian rhythms and disrupts a good night’s sleep.
  • Avoid using electronic devices an hour or more before bedtime. 
  • Other healthy sleep tricks to implement are using blackout curtains, dimming lights, and maintaining a comfortable room temperature of 62-67 degrees. Dr. Ostermiller recommends a dark, cool room and suggests night lights no brighter than the full moon. Aromatherapy and sound machines are also helpful support.

Calm Evening Routine

Establishing a calm and relaxing evening routine can tell the body it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. For example,

  • Encourage your teens to replace evening screen time with relaxing activities before bed, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath or shower, practicing deep breathing exercises, or listening to calming music. 
  • Avoid heavy meals within three hours of bed, and instead eat a light supper earlier in the evening.

Get Regular Exercise 

Daily exercise can impact sleep quality and duration. Regular exercise promotes better overall sleep but also reduces stress and releases endorphins. If your teen is not already playing a sport, here are a few tips on establishing healthy exercise routines:

  • Our community is filled with incredible recreational opportunities, making our backyard a playground. Encourage your teen to take a hike, walk or bike ride. Encourage them to join one of the many local programs for skiing in the winter, and whitewater in the summer. While competitive sports are not for everyone, getting outside and being active is easy to do with a little effort. Invite friends and make it social.
  • Our community offers a variety of classes designed specifically for youth, including dance, martial arts, Pilates, and even a cycling club at Payette Lakes Middle School. 

Of course, avoid vigorous exercise too close to bedtime, as it can stimulate the body and make it difficult to fall asleep. Plan for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise during the day, ideally in the afternoon or early evening. This timing allows the body to wind down naturally before bedtime.

Embrace Morning Sunlight 

When it comes to regulating the body’s internal clock, exposure to natural sunlight in the morning is vital. It’s important to help set the circadian rhythm.

  • Not only does exposure to natural light aid in regulating the circadian rhythm, but it also has a positive impact on mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.
  • Incorporating this simple habit into their daily routine can have long-lasting benefits for their sleep quality and overall health.

The importance of healthy sleep routines and later school start times cannot be overstated when it comes to improving the mental health, mood, and academic performance of our youth. By prioritizing quality sleep, we can support our teens in achieving their full potential, so they thrive.

Implementing a later school start time that aligns with a teen’s natural circadian rhythms has shown significant benefits, including improved academic performance, reduced absenteeism, and better overall mental health. While the process of implementing such changes may pose short-term challenges, it is crucial that we prioritize the well-being of our youth and take proactive steps to address this issue.

In the meantime, there are actions we as parents can take to support our teens in developing healthier sleep routines. Creating a consistent sleep schedule, maintaining a sleep-friendly environment, establishing a calm evening routine, getting regular exercise, and embracing morning sunlight can all contribute to better sleep habits.

By working together as a community and advocating for the importance of healthy sleep, we can create an environment that fosters the well-being and success of our teens. Let us strive to be leaders in promoting better sleep, overall health, and a brighter future for our youth in Valley County and beyond.

*2023 West Central Mountains Planet Youth Student Survey

Jean Munoz Keese is a health and wellness writer and marketing consultant. She is also a holistic wellness professional specializing in Clinical Ayurveda, Pilates, and Mindful living. Jean is the McCall-Donnelly Planet Youth Coalition coordinator, and West Central Mountains Regional Planet Youth Marketing Director. She is passionate about helping people cultivate healthy lifestyles and believes this is the foundation for a balanced and joyful life.