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New California school start times allow kids more sleep

Teens and preteens are now able to get more sleep, thanks to a new California law that pushes back school start times.

A new school year has started, and it's back to making sure your kids wake up in time for class. But this year, it might be a little easier for Californian students who have a tough time getting out of bed.

Thanks to a new state law mandating that start times at middle and high schools be later than they have been in the past, most teens and pre-teens will be getting more sleep -- something scientists say is crucial for their overall health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 out of 10 high school students don't get the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep. Sumit Bhargava, MD, pediatric sleep medicine specialist at Stanford Medicine Children's Health, said part of that has to do with societal demands.

"Adolescents feel sleepy much later in the evening as compared to elementary school students," he explained. "As such, a high school student going through adolescence will need a later bedtime. But, in most cases, they have to wake up relatively early for school, which results in the sleep deprived teenager having difficulty waking up and then feeling sleepy or falling asleep in class."

The California legislation, which took effect July 1, calls for classes to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. at all public high schools and no earlier than 8 a.m. at all middle schools. 

Setting good sleep habits

Research has shown that getting enough sleep not only improves academic performance but can also protect against chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and support healthy brain development.

But what if going to school later makes your teen thinks it's OK to go to bed later, too?

Spoiler alert: That's not the case.

"Sleep needs to be considered part of a healthy lifestyle, and good sleep habits can be both taught and learned," Bhargava said. "Something that's key to maintaining circadian rhythm of adolescents with varying sleep onset and duration is having a consistent wake time every morning. That, and avoiding oversleeping on weekends."

Aside from general advice that includes setting a bedtime schedule and turning off all screens, Bhargava suggests also keeping phones or tablets outside of the teen's room at night.

"Research has shown that even the presence of a charging device can reduce sleep duration by 20 to 30 minutes," he said.

There's no catching up

While teens may think they can catch up on lost hours of sleep time over the weekend, it's not likely they can. Research has shown it can take up to four days to recover from one hour of sleep deficit and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt, which is the cumulative effect of the hours of sleep your body needs.

"Short term recovery happens with naps, but if your teen takes a nap late in the afternoon, it will lead to a delay in falling asleep that night, setting up a cycle of decreased sleep duration, daytime drowsiness and increased sleep debt," Bhargava added.

Finally, Bhargava pointed out, sleep issues are unique to each person. So if your child is having ongoing difficulty sleeping, it's important to consult with their health care provider or a sleep specialist.

A version of this article originally published on the Stanford Medicine Children's Health Healthier, Happy Lives blog.

Photo by Evelien

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