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How teens can get the sleep they need in spite of school schedules

Severna Park, Md. -- Sonal Parikh speaks with her son, Rohan Parikh, 15, as he eats breakfast before school early Tuesday morning. Rohan, a sophomore in the STEM Magnet program at South River High School, often wakes up at 4:45 a.m. on days he rides the bus to school.
Severna Park, Md. -- Sonal Parikh speaks with her son, Rohan Parikh, 15, as he eats breakfast before school early Tuesday morning. Rohan, a sophomore in the STEM Magnet program at South River High School, often wakes up at 4:45 a.m. on days he rides the bus to school. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

On school days, Rohan Parikh has the sunrise beat — by as much as two hours.

The Severna Park teenager wakes at 4:45 on mornings he rides the bus to South River High School, where he's a student in the STEM Magnet program. On days his mother drives him, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m.

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"By the time I get to school, I'm a lot more awake," the 15-year-old said. "But I'm still not 100 percent."

On an average school night, after he's finished with track practice, dinner and homework, Parikh sleeps about six to seven hours. That, sleep experts say, is not enough.

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The average tween and teen get about 7.5 hours of sleep a night instead of the 9 to 9.5 hours recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, said Dr. Laura Sterni, director of the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Sleep Center.

"It's a huge public health issue," Sterni said.

Studies show teens' inadequate sleep can have negative side effects, such as poor decision-making and task performance, depression and obesity. But experts say changes in behavior can temper the sleep-depriving effects of late-night activities like homework, sports and technology use. Furthermore, establishing sleep-friendly habits can help them cope with factors they can't change, like early school start times.

This year, classes at South River and other Anne Arundel County public high schools begin at 7:17 a.m. Nearby districts are in the same league — public high schools in Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties also start classes before 8 a.m. Experts say that's part of the problem.

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"Schools start early, which goes against [teens'] natural biological clock," Sterni said.

During puberty, a shift occurs in the body's internal circadian clock, she said. That causes teens to biologically prefer later bedtimes.

"No matter what you do, you can't fight against it," Sterni said. "They can't go to bed at 7 o'clock, even if you ask them to."

Then, when they wake before sunrise, their bodies aren't ready, said Dr. Jennifer Accardo, director of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"They are awake technically, but they're not in a good position to learn because, biologically, their brain should still be asleep," she said.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement urging middle and high schools to change start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. so students could get sufficient sleep.

In light of that statement and parents pushing for change, school systems across Maryland are considering later start times. Local leaders at Start School Later, a national advocacy group with chapters in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties, have lobbied school officials to push back opening bells.

Mark Donovan, head of Start School Later's Howard County chapter, is a cognitive therapist who works with teens and also has two teenage children. His ideal high school start time?

"I would be very happy with anything after 8 o'clock," he said. "Ideal would be 8:30 a.m. Most other countries don't start school until 8:30 or 9. There's a reason for that. "

Many teens also participate in extracurricular activities after school, leaving homework and technology use, both school-related and social, for late at night.

"Computers, phones, TV… they all keep kids engaged at night," Sterni said. "It's hard for you to turn your brain off when you turn your phone off."

The blue light emitted from electronics is also "incredibly pervasive," Accardo said. It suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles.

Despite the challenges, simple behavior changes can help teens get the rest they need.

Put the electronics away before bedtime, and try to get homework done as early as possible to give the brain a chance to relax, said Valerie Paasch, a behavioral psychologist at Kennedy Krieger's Sleep Disorders Clinic.

"Don't do homework, text or talk on the phone in bed," she said. "We want to save our bed for sleeping."

In addition, parents should make sleep a priority for the whole family, Sterni said. Change schedules to avoid late-night activities when possible, and establish calming bedtime routines, she said.

Rohan Parikh listens to quiet classical music before he goes to bed, just as he has done since he was a baby, said Sonal Parikh, his mother. Within 15 minutes, he's asleep.

"His body knows it's time to shut down," she said. The family also keeps Sunday nights free so they can transition back into the weekday routine.

By sticking to a routine and teaching tweens and teens the importance of sleep, the extra hours will eventually come, Sterni said.

"You can affect sleep habits by teaching parents and kids about this early," she said. "The bottom line is it should be as important as brushing your teeth."

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