How to Address Sleep Issues for Older Kids

A teenage girl asleep in her bed

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As a parent, you've probably heard a lot about sleep strategies since the day your first child was born. From sleep schedules for babies to tips on how to get little kids to sleep more, you've likely read it all. You may even believe that now that your kids are older, you don't have to worry about sleep. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

In fact, it's not uncommon for older kids to experience a variety of sleep challenges like insomnia, sleep debt, and even sleep apnea. And because lack of sleep can impact everything from their academic success to their physical health, instilling healthy sleep habits becomes more important than ever for older kids.

Not only will they need to establish healthy sleep practices now, but they also need to learn how to manage their sleep needs on their own, especially as they get closer to their college years and young adulthood. Here's what you need to know about tween and teen sleep issues including how to make sure they are getting the quality slumber their bodies need.

Sleep Needs of Older Kids

While it's true that older kids need less sleep than younger kids, they still require a solid stretch of sleep. In fact, pediatric sleep experts advise that tweens need between 9 and 12 hours of sleep per night, and teens need between 8 and 10 hours. Keep in mind that the specific amount of rest each child needs may vary by an hour or so, though.

Getting enough sleep is crucial for proper development, daytime alertness, and optimal functioning while chronic lack of sleep can have significant health ramifications. In fact, regularly missing out on the optimal hours of sleep has been linked with attention, behavior, and learning problems, says Shalini Paruthi, MD, a Missouri-based sleep specialist.

Dr. Shalini Paruthi

Insufficient sleep, due to inadequate or mistimed sleep, may contribute to the risk for several of today’s public health epidemics, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

— Dr. Shalini Paruthi

Common Sleep Concerns

Yet, despite a very real need for quality sleep, research still shows that most older kids are not getting the sleep they need. A 2018 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that around 60% of middle schoolers and 70% of high schoolers regularly get less sleep than recommended.

Ready access to screens tops the list of reasons why many tweens and teens struggle to get the sleep they need. Having electronics in their bedrooms, including cell phones, computers, and tablets, can create a lot of disruptions at night especially if they are not silenced or placed on do not disturb. They can “ping” all night, interrupting your child's sleep—and potentially lure them to use their devices when they should be asleep.

"Unfortunately, these devices [also] generate late night light that can turn off the teen’s own melatonin, a natural hormone that promotes sleep," says Carol Rosen, MD, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist and professor of pediatrics, emerita at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sleep Apnea

Another common sleep concern for older kids is sleep apnea, which includes loud snoring and pauses in breathing, says Shelby Harris, PsyD, a New York clinical psychologist, who is board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine.

"Sleep apnea is becoming more and more common as kids are gaining more weight and becoming overweight," Dr. Harris explains. "Insomnia [also] is a growing issue as well with increased stress, anxiety, and depression."

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

Dr. Rosen says older children also can struggle with delayed sleep phase syndrome. This syndrome occurs when a young person's internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, is out of sync causing them to go to sleep later at night and then want to sleep more in the morning.

"During puberty, tweens and teens have a biological tendency to fall asleep later and wake up later, which makes it difficult to get enough sleep, especially when faced with early school start times," says Dr. Rosen.

Other Sleep Conditions

Additionally, older kids may deal with a variety of other sleep disruptions, such as sleepwalking, sleeptalking, and night terrors, which may be hereditary, says Dr. Harris. It's also not unheard of for older children to be impacted by sleep disorders like snoring and restless legs syndrome.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

If your child is easy to wake up in the morning and doesn't tend to drag in the afternoon, they are probably getting enough sleep. On the other hand, it's worrisome if your tween or teen needs a nap or tends to doze off later in the day, such as while watching TV. Issues with attention, concentration, reactivity, and irritability are also signs that your child may be sleep-deprived.

"If there’s loud snoring, pauses in breathing, or issues with thrashing or moving a lot in sleep, that’s another sign that sleep quality might be impaired and you should talk with your doctor," advises Dr. Harris.

Your child should be falling asleep in less than 30 minutes and not be awake for brief periods during the middle of the night, says Dr. Paruthi. Additionally, trust your instincts. If you feel like something might be wrong with your child's sleep habits, talk to their healthcare provider.

"In my experience, when parents feel something is not right with their child’s sleep or daytime function, those are reasons to see the pediatrician or seek out a board-certified sleep specialist," says Dr. Paruthi.

Causes of Sleep Issues

Sleep concerns in older kids are often a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Environmental issues that impact sleep may include noise, high temperature, lack of light, not enough physical activity, too much stress or pressure, over-scheduling, excessive screen use (particularly too late at night), and too much sugar or caffeine, says Dr. Harris.

Sleep challenges often run in families as well. Mental health concerns like depression and anxiety may also contribute to sleep issues in older kids. Growing pains, restless legs, and other physical discomforts or conditions can also make getting to sleep or staying asleep more difficult.

Encouraging Healthy Sleep Habits

The first step in correcting (and preventing) sleep issues in older kids is to establish healthy sleep habits. You can start by establishing regular sleep and wake times for your kids. Going to bed at roughly the same time every day helps them get on a schedule and ensure they are getting consistent sleep.

To help promote regular sleep, work with your tween or teen to develop a consistent nighttime ritual or routine. Routines can include any series of relaxing activities your tween or teen enjoys like taking a bath, listening to calming music, stretching, or reading. You also should limit caffeine and sugar, especially in the later evening.

Another way to promote good sleep habits is to aim for your tween or teen to do their homework outside of their bedroom or at least out of the bed so that the bed is only for sleep, suggests Dr. Harris. And, if at all possible, teach them to avoid screens in an hour or two before bed, especially in the bedroom.

"[Help your kids learn to] wind down one hour before bed and get the tech out of the bedroom during this time," Dr.Harris suggests. "Take the temptation away!"

Once it is time for bed, make sure your tween or teen's room is dark and quiet. You also want to make sure it is cool and comfortable. Other factors that can influence sleep include eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly. You could even try teaching your kids how to use mindfulness or mind-body connection practices to promote better sleep.

Some parents are curious if melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that the body makes to help you fall asleep and stay asleep, will help improve sleep quality. But according to Dr. Rosen, it won’t work without instituting a regular wake/sleep schedule and a supportive sleep environment.

"Talk with your doctor about whether melatonin is appropriate for your teen before giving it to your child," she says.

Additionally, help your tween or teen understand that sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle that is important for their future because "poor sleep can increase the risk of physical health problems throughout a child’s life," says Dr. Paruthi.

When to See a Doctor

Usually, sleep issues can be treated at home using basic sleep hygiene techniques like those mentioned above. In fact, improvement is often seen after a few weeks of instituting positive sleep habits, says Dr. Harris. Sometimes, though, more help is needed.

For more severe or chronic problems that don't respond to changes in sleep behaviors, contact your pediatrician. They can evaluate your child's sleep concerns and refer them to a sleep specialist if needed.

When warranted, a sleep specialist will conduct a sleep study. Sometimes these studies can be done at home and other times they are conducted in a sleep lab, explains Dr. Harris. Other treatments for sleep issues include bright light therapy, timed low-dose melatonin, and changing sleep and wake times to reset the body clock,

"Medication isn’t the first-line answer for most people with sleep issues, especially teens," she says.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with an older child's sleep issues can seem overwhelming at first, especially when they have a natural tendency toward being night owls. But sleep deprivation can create a number of issues.

A sleep-deprived tween or teen is likely to be cranky, groggy, and moody, which can impact their academic success and their physical health. Helping them develop healthy sleep habits and address any sleep concerns they have will help them get the rest they need, feel better, and perform at their best.

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3 Sources
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