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Let Them Sleep In: Docs Want Later School Times for Teens

Your teenager wants to sleep later and now his doctor agrees.
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Your teenager wants to sleep later and now his doctor agrees. Middle and high school students shouldn’t have to start school until 8:30 in the morning or later, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” says Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, who led the team that wrote the group’s policy statement on the issue.

“Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

Many school districts are debating making the change. The Long Beach, California, school board voted last year to delay the start of middle school until 9 a.m. But the school district in Durham, North Carolina just this month delayed a plan to move high school start times to 8 a.m. instead of 7.30 a.m.

South Carolina principal Amanda O'Nan moved Hilton Head High School's start time from 7:45 to 8:35 this year as a pilot experiment and told NBC News that she expects it to help kids focus on academics.

"We've seen students roll in for first block at 7:45 and they're sleepy, their heads are down," she said. "So far we've been in school for a week and we think it's successful. We see them alert in the classroom and we see a more positive attitude when they come in and the sun is up and headed to first block."

It’s a complex issue, with school boards, educators and parents struggling to balance bus schedules, after-school activities and, for older students, work schedules. In Hilton Head, students now get out of school at 3:30 instead of 2:30, and have to adjust sports, tutoring and work schedules.

“These kids are essentially in a permanent state of jet lag."

But the AAP decided to weigh in on the longstanding debate as an important health issue.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation's youth,” Owens said, explaining that the AAP "is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating (the change).”

Tommy Cooper, a 17-year-old senior at Hilton Head, said he's getting more sleep now and has more energy. With the earlier schedule, he said, "I was like a zombie."

"I'd definitely say everyone is on board with it. Everyone seems to like the idea," he said. "When we all show up to school... we like being there. We don't mind being up at that time of the morning. We like seeing each other and I think it's gone over very well."

Owens says biology should trump convenience.

“Around the time that teenagers go into puberty, there are changes in what's called the circadian rhythm. And that is the body's time clock that regulates sleep and wake patterns,” she told NBC News.

“And so at around the beginning of adolescence, there is a natural delay in fall-asleep time and wake time. So that the average teenager can't fall asleep much before 11 o'clock. However, they also need between eight and a half and nice and a half hours of sleep per night so if you do the math, they are biologically programmed to fall asleep at 11 and wake at around 8am. And that's a time when they're already in first period class.”

Teens often sleep in over the weekend, making matters worse, she added. “These kids are essentially in a permanent state of jet lag,” she said.

Making matters worse, many teen habits make it even harder to fall asleep. Here’s where parents can help.

“Many teenagers sleep with their cell phones in their pillows and they're texting all night,” Owens said. “So I think it's very important for parents to set limits on the use of those kinds of electronics.” Studies have shown that the light from an iPad or even a cell phone can keep the brain in a waking, excited state.

A quick nap can help, Owens advises. “Certainly planned naps in the afternoon, late in the afternoon for 20 minutes or so can take the edge off and temporarily restore alertness,” she advises.

A separate study published this month cautions about the consequences of not getting enough sleep. It found that teenagers who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to become obese.

Shakira Suglia of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and colleagues found in a survey of 10,000 teens and young adults that about a fifth of the 16-year-olds reported getting less than six hours of sleep a night. They were 20 percent more likely to be obese by age 21, compared to their peers who got more than eight hours of sleep, Suglia’s team reported in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“Lack of sleep in your teenage years can stack the deck against you for obesity later in life,” Suglia said in a statement. “Once you’re an obese adult, it is much harder to lose weight and keep it off. And the longer you are obese, the greater your risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Tommy Cooper's mother, Eileen, said the later start time has made her mornings more civilized. "We have a chance to talk for a few minutes instead of this child who is just truly not awake yet just rolling out the door."

And for Tommy, the late start time is welcome, she said: "Exactly what teenager wouldn't want another hour of sleep?"

NBC's Janet Shamlian and Nikita Japra contributed to this story.