We all yearn for that extra hour of sleep in the morning, but middle and high school students may actually need it to stay healthy. A new policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics titled “School Start Times for Adolescents” suggests that school administrators in the United States should delay first-period start time by an hour to prevent both the physical and mental health side effects that are spurred on by chronic sleep loss.

“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,” Dr. Judith Owens, lead researcher and sleep medicine specialist at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, 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 that change.”

Owens and her colleagues called upon a string of recent reports, including a National Sleep Foundation poll that revealed 59 percent of sixth through eighth graders and 87 percent of high school students were not getting the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep the night before school. Reasons for insufficient sleep throughout the week included homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs, and the use of electronic devices. Researchers warned that caffeine, naps, and extended sleep on the weekend are only temporary fixes and there is no substitute for the recommended amount of sleep on a school night.

An adolescent’s natural sleep cycle shifts up to two hours at the start of puberty, making it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. The AAP recommends that all middle and high schools consider delaying the start of first period from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., which would align with the biological sleep rhythm of adolescents. In hopes of encouraging healthier sleep habits among students, the AAP also suggests a curfew on electronic devices and that students, parents, educators, and athletic coaches learn about what biological and environmental factors contribute to sleep deprivation in adolescents.  

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” Owens added. “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. 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.”

Students who fail to receive the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on a school night run the risk of of physical and mental health complications such as lack of mental alertness, memory and cognitive impairment, stress, and poor academic performance. Evidence from recent studies have also revealed that insufficient sleep can increase a student’s risk of an automobile accident and that long-term side effects can include cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and even depression.

Source: Owens J, et al. School Start Times for Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2014.