Sue Scheff: Sleeping Pills and Teens




“Part of it I think now is there is so much more pressure in the academic settings. There are kids who are working tremendous numbers of hours each evening to get their schoolwork done. I get a sense that many of them worry about how they are doing academically, and that tends to spill over into difficulties with sleep.”

– Richard Winer, M.D., Psychiatrist

Whether it’s an over-the-counter medication like Nyquil, or a prescription drug like Ambien or Sonata, more and more teens say they often take something to get to sleep.

“It’s mainly just stress… you want to study and then you realize you need to sleep because you have a test the next day and then you just take something,” says Chelsea, 19.

“An Ambien to knock me out,” adds 19-year-old Jessica.

“I’ll take Nyquil or something like that, just to help me get to sleep easier,” explains Allison, 19.

Why do kids today need help getting to sleep? Experts say there are several answers: greater academic pressure, more stimulation late at night, with cell phones, TV, computer games, instant messaging, more kids with ADHD taking stimulants like Ritalin, and an explosion in the use of caffeine drinks.

The result: at bedtime, many kids are looking for help in a pill.

“Our culture is certainly turned more toward a living better through chemistry approach,” say Psychiatrist Richard Winer, M.D.

He says the problem is the obvious: Sleeping aids can be habit forming. “My bias is toward keeping kids away from medication for sleep if at all possible. Because you don’t want to create some habits that’ll be even harder to break as time goes on in adulthood.”

He says for many kids, the solution is routine: Relax for a while, and then go to bed at the same time every night.

But, for some, the problem is more serious.

“There are a number of kids out there that have honest to goodness insomnia difficulties,” says Dr. Winer, “They have sleep disorders that do require treatment.”

Tips for Parents

A study performed by researchers at Stanford University found that teenagers require approximately one to two hours more sleep than 9- and 10-year-olds, who only require about eight hours of sleep. This goes against the school of thought that allows older kids to stay up later. Parents may want to be on the lookout for the following things, which could be caused from sleep deprivation:

Difficulty waking in the morning
Irritability in the afternoon
Falling asleep during the day
Oversleeping on the weekend
Having difficulty remembering or concentrating
Waking up often and having trouble going back to sleep
Sleep deprivation also can lead to extreme moodiness, poor performance in school and depression. Teens who aren’t getting enough sleep also have a higher risk of having car accidents because of falling asleep behind the wheel.


As the lives of children seem to be getting busier, their sleeping habits may be one of the first things impacted. Sleep, though being something that often gets sacrificed, is actually one of the most important things in a child’s life. Experts say taking sleep medications unauthorized by the FDA for teenage consumption is not the answer, however. Here are some suggestions about sleep:

Sleep is as important as food and air. Quantity and quality are very important. Most people need between seven-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted sleep. If you want to press the snooze alarm in the morning you are not getting the sleep you need. This could be due to not enough time in bed, external disturbances or a sleep disorder.
Keep regular hours. Try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day. Getting up at the same time is most important. Getting bright light, like the sun, when you get up will also help. Try to go to bed only when you are sleepy. Bright light in the morning at a regular time should help you feel sleepy at the same time every night.

Stay away from stimulants like caffeine. This will help you get deep sleep, which is most refreshing. If you take any caffeine, take it in the morning. Avoid all stimulants in the evening, including chocolate, caffeinated sodas and caffeinated teas. They will delay sleep and increase awakenings during the night.

Use the bed just for sleeping. Avoid watching television, using laptop computers or reading in bed. Bright light from these activities and subject matter may inhibit sleep. If it helps to read before sleeping, make sure you use a very small wattage bulb to read. A 15-watt bulb should be enough.

Avoid bright light around the house before bed. Using dimmer switches in living rooms and bathrooms before bed can be helpful. Dimmer switches can be set to maximum brightness for morning routines.

Don't stress if you feel you are not getting enough sleep. It will just make matters worse. Know you will sleep eventually.

Avoid exercise near bedtime. No exercise at least three hours before bed.

Don't go to bed hungry. Have a light snack, but avoid a heavy meal before bed.

Bedtime routines are helpful for good sleep.

Avoid looking at the clock if you wake up in the middle of the night. It can cause anxiety.
If you can't get to sleep for over 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring in dim light till you are sleepy.

Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature.

If you have problems with noise in your environment, you can use a white noise generator. A fan will work.

References
American Sleep Apnea Association
National Sleep Foundation
Shuteye
Thomson Reuters

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