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You're busy with school, sports, after-school activities, homework, and a job. So be honest - how high on your priority list is a good night's sleep? For many teens, not very. Perhaps you don't think you need much sleep ("I can get by on 6 hours") or maybe you figure you can make up for it on the weekend ("I always sleep until noon on Saturday").

Although you may think getting the right amount of ZZZs isn't all-important, it is. In the same way that you make sure to get enough to eat, good sleep habits are a big part of staying healthy. And it's not just about making your parents and teachers happy. If you want to do well on tests, play sports without falling on your face, and hang out with your friends without turning into a zombie, you'll want to take a hard look at your sleep routine. Read on for some sleepy surprises - you'll be amazed what a few ZZZs can do for you!

The Skinny on Sleep
Sleep isn't simply the opposite of being awake. In fact, while you're in sweet slumber, your brain is still active. As you sleep, your brain passes through stages that are necessary for you to stay healthy. Sleep is actually food for your brain! And like food, sleep is not an option - it's a need.

Many people - both teens and adults - believe that if they don't get enough sleep during the week, they can catch up on that lost sleep over the weekend and it will all even out. Although this seems like a simple trade-off, trying to pay back your sleep "debt" on weekends doesn't always work.

One of the most important stages of sleep is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, or the dream stage. REM is necessary because this is when your mind processes your experiences and helps you adjust to the world around you. REM sleep usually happens after you've already been asleep for about 4 hours. So if you only sleep for 6 hours a night and you use naps or weekends to make it up, you may not get the same quality of sleep that you would have if you had tacked on an extra 2 hours at the end of the 6 hours.

Some teens experience sleep problems that go beyond the occasional late night out. If you experience any of the following symptoms that make you think that you may have a problem, talk to your doctor.

Sleep Problems

is when you walk or move around during sleep. Because most sleepwalkers don't sleepwalk very often, it usually doesn't become a serious problem. But some sleepwalkers move around almost every night, and they are at risk of getting hurt if they go into the kitchen where there are sharp items, for example, or if they go outside.

Sleep apnea
is a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing temporarily during sleep. Causes of apnea include enlarged adenoids (tissues located in the passage that connects the nose and throat) and tonsils and obesity. A person with sleep apnea may experience snoring, difficulty breathing, choking, and heavy sweating during sleep. Other symptoms include feeling extremely sleepy or irritable during the day.

is what happens when you have a lot of trouble falling asleep, especially when it happens often. The most common cause for insomnia is stress caused by a big change in routine, such as starting at a new school or moving. Chronic insomnia lasts more than a month and may be caused by problems such as depression.

(pronounced: nar-kuh-lep-see) is a sleep disorder in which the person has sleep "attacks" during the day during which she can't stay awake no matter how much sleep she has gotten the night before. Narcolepsy can be dangerous because people with it can fall asleep in dangerous situations, such as while driving a car.

How Many ZZZs Do I Need?
Do you think that as a teen you need less sleep than your younger sister or brother? Actually, research shows that for teens to feel tops, on average they need a whopping 9.2 hours of sleep each night! But this number can be hard to reach - you don't need to be a math whiz to figure out that if you wake up for school at 6 AM, you'd have to go to bed at 9 PM to reach the 9-hour mark. Recent studies have shown that many teens have trouble going to sleep so early - not because teens want to rebel against bedtime, but because their brains naturally work on later schedules and aren't ready for bed.

What happens if you don't get enough sleep? Plenty. You'll probably feel very sleepy during the day and you may have trouble staying awake in class. This can affect your ability to concentrate, make good judgments, and get good grades. Most importantly, you run the risk of falling asleep while driving your car, which could lead to a serious accident. Some teens experience emotional problems such as depression if they don't get enough sleep. You might also feel irritable, cranky, or more emotional than usual. Not getting enough sleep can also contribute to skin problems, such as acne.

Tips for Getting the Right Amount of ZZZs
If you want to make good sleep a habit, take a look at your everyday schedule. Are you working so many hours at your after-school job that you end up staying up late to finish homework? Does football practice take up so much time that you never get to bed before 11 PM? If so, think about ways to make your schedule more manageable. Can you work fewer hours if your job isn't essential? If football is especially important, can you drop another activity to make time for sleep?

If you are getting enough rest at night and you are still falling asleep during the day, it's a good idea to visit your doctor. He or she will look at your overall health and sleep habits and may do a test to find out whether anything is happening during the night to disturb your sleep, like sleep apnea.

There are ways that may make it easier for you to fall asleep when you hit the sack. Here are some tips for good sleep "hygiene":

  • Have a regular bedtime and try to arrange your schedule so that you can stick to it.
  • Don't nap a lot during the day. If you do take naps, limit them to 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Leave some time to unwind before bed. This may mean saving a little time for the stress-reducing techniques such as meditation that work best for you.
  • Don't exercise right before bed. It's important to get enough regular exercise, but plan to do it in the early afternoon if possible.
  • Avoid beverages that contain caffeine, such as coffee or soft drinks, after late afternoon.
  • Try to stay on schedule even if it's a weekend. Don't go to sleep more than an hour later or wake up more than 2 to 3 hours later than usual.
  • Get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning, but avoid it in the evening. Bright light signals the brain that it's time to wake up.
  • Say no to cramming for exams with all-nighters. The best way to prepare for a test is to spread your studying out over time and to get plenty of sleep.

Reviewed by: Steve Dowshen, MD and Winslow Borkowski, MD
Date reviewed: February 2001

Source: KidsHealth is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida.  Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children