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Later School Start Times for Teenagers Get Another National Endorsement

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Another national organization of health-care professionals has come out in favor of school start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has now made the same recommendation as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the  American Medical Association, and several other national organizations.  

The AASM made its recommendation through a position statement, which was published this month in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The statement reads in part, "During adolescence, internal circadian rhythms and biological sleep drive change to result in later sleep and wake times. As a result of these changes, early middle school and high school start times curtail sleep, hamper a student's preparedness to learn, negatively impact physical and mental health, and impair driving safety."

AASM stresses that a lack of proper sleep is associated with many problems for students including poor school performance, obesity, increased depressive symptoms, and increased risk of car accidents.

Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson is the lead author of the AASM statement and the group's immediate past president. He's also a professor of neurology at the University of Washington.

AASM recommends that adolescents get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. But that can be difficult when school starts before 8:30 a.m. Simply going to bed earlier is not a viable option for most teenagers. During adolescence, changes occur in the circadian rhythms of teens making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

The group's policy statement includes statistics showing most teenagers are not getting enough sleep:

  • Nearly 70 percent of high school students in the United States sleep seven hours or less on school nights;
  • Only 23 percent sleep eight hours, while only 2 percent sleep 10 hours or more.

Watson said he hopes the AASM taking a stand will encourage more school boards around the country to adopt later school start times for middle and high school students.

"We're concerned about adolescent health and well-being," said Watson. "The evidence has continued to mount regarding the issue of the negative impact of early bell times on adolescent health."

One of the biggest dangers is sleepy teens getting behind the wheel of a car.

"The research shows younger people are more susceptible to the effects of drowsiness when driving," said Watson. "When you consider the problem of drowsy driving and fall-asleep crashes, it's this younger group of drivers, these novice drivers, who are most susceptible to being affected by this."

Statistics provided by the AASM show crash rates for teen drivers decline by 17 percent following a school start time delay of one hour.

Beyond Later Bell Times

Watson adds that morning bell times of 8:30 a.m. and later won't solve all of adolescents' sleep problems.

For schools that do push start times back, the AASM recommends that practices or other school-related events also don't take place before 8:30 a.m.

Watson also stresses that students and their parents have a role to play.

He has the following tips for healthy adolescent sleep:

  • Consistent bedtimes and wake times both during the week and on the weekends
  • A consistent bedtime routine
  • No caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • No exercise or eating right before bed
  • Turn off all screens in the wind-down time before bed.

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