Zombie teen-agers need more zzz's

September 10, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

So that high schooler of yours has to be blasted out of bed, doesn't seem awake even when up, and sleepwalks out of the house to school.

Think of it as juvenile jet lag, legacy of the first week back in school.

"It's worse than that," says Richard P. Allen, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Clinic. "Many never get over it."

Turn up the parental angst.

Dr. Allen, a clinical psychologist with a doctorate in psychology, has done four surveys involving more than 300 students at five high schools in the greater Baltimore area. The surveys, conducted between December and March, studied sleep patterns and their impact on academic performance.

"Our research showed a correlation between less sleep in the school week and poorer grades," he says.

And, though the shock of going from summer vacation to the start of school was long past at the time of the surveys, teens still had sleep problems.

"The students mostly were 12th graders and some 11th graders," he says. "We asked about sleep patterns during the school week and the weekends. The average night's sleep on weekdays was seven hours and on the weekends nine hours.

"Seven hours is much too little sleep for this age. Adolescents need nine to 9 1/2 hours a night."

Less than that amounts to sleep deprivation, "not a trivial thing."

But say your sleepwalkers make it to school. What then?

"They could be sleepy until 10 or 11 in the morning," Dr. Allen says. "That means the first two or three periods. They're not waking up fully until about time for lunch."

The psychologist says diminished performance in the early hours could be reduced by flip-flopping starting times of elementary and high schools.

Elementary grades begin later than the advanced grades. For instance, Baltimore County high schools start at about 7:45 a.m. and most elementaries begin around 9 a.m.

"Elementary-age kids can get up early easier," he says. "But it's an insult to the natural biology of sleeping and waking for high school kids."

While waiting for school system overhaul, what's a parent to do?

If you had read this sooner, you could have had your progeny in bed earlier for a period before school started so his or her body could have realigned its basic rhythms.

However, "on weekends, get the kids to bed as early as possible, no later than 1 a.m., to help in adjusting to the school week," Dr. Allen says. "That's not too much to ask."

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