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Insomnia in Teens: What Parents Should Know

Many teens have trouble sleeping at night, and that can make them feel tired during the day. It also can make them more likely to be in a bad mood, have problems at school, or struggle with other activities.

Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to other health conditions, including high blood pressure, depression, or trouble fighting infections. That's why treating insomnia is important for maintaining good health.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia (in-SAHM-nee-uh) is when a person is unable to sleep, for any reason. Teens may have trouble:

  • falling asleep: This means it takes more than half an hour to fall asleep after getting into bed.
  • staying asleep: This means they wake often throughout the night, or they wake up too early in the morning and can't get back to sleep.

Teens with insomnia could have one or both problems. No matter the number of hours they’re lying in bed at night, most won’t feel well-rested.

What Causes Insomnia?

Doctors can’t always identify why a person struggles with sleep, but common causes in teens include:

  • mental health conditions like depression or anxiety
  • medical problems like asthma, allergies, or eczema
  • other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
  • developmental conditions like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (autism)
  • taking certain medicines, like steroids or antidepressants
  • too much screen time before bed
  • eating or drinking too much caffeine during the day or later in the evening

One of the most common reasons for insomnia in teens is that their internal sleep clock shifts to a later bedtime. During the teen years, the body releases the sleep hormone melatonin later at night than in childhood or adulthood. This leads to a natural tendency to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. When it interferes with daily activities, it’s known as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder.

How Is Insomnia Diagnosed?

Many different conditions can cause insomnia, so there’s no single test that can diagnose it. Doctors will start by asking questions about your teen’s sleep habits and may recommend keeping a sleep journal to track nighttime sleep. They may also test for related conditions to see what could be causing insomnia.

Sometimes, doctors recommend a sleep study, also known as a polysomnogram. During a sleep study, a person will spend the night in a sleep lab while hooked up to a computer via sensors placed on the body. Doctors use sleep studies to check a variety of things during sleep, such as heart rate, brain waves, and breathing patterns.

How Is Insomnia Treated?

Treatments for insomnia depends on what’s causing it. For instance, when health conditions like asthma, allergies, obstructive sleep apnea, and ADHD cause insomnia, treating the condition will help treat the insomnia. If anxiety or depression affects a teen’s sleep, doctors may recommend talking to a therapist or psychiatrist.

One of the most effective therapies for insomnia is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which can help even when doctors aren’t sure what’s causing the insomnia. CBT involves learning how to change negative thoughts and emotions that can affect sleep. Often, lifestyle changes and new habits are all that’s needed.

Sleep medicines are rarely used for teens. Not enough studies have been done yet to prove that they're safe and effective, and they risk causing side effects. Even herbal supplements or “natural” medicines can cause side effects. But occasionally, a doctor may recommend that a teen try a sleep medicine for a short time (for example, a low dose of melatonin). Talk to your teen's doctor before giving your teen any new medicine or supplement.

What Can Help My Teen Get Better Sleep?

Sleep hygiene refers to all the behaviors and habits around sleep. Good sleep hygiene strategies can help your teen get enough sleep. 

Ways to improve sleep hygiene include:

  • following a bedtime routine
  • limiting bright lights and electronics at night
  • going to bed and waking up at around the same times every day
  • keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet

If your teen often has trouble sleeping or feels tired throughout the day, schedule a visit with their doctor.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: May 1, 2024

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