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'I've aged 10 years': The second wave of sleep deprivation no one warns you about

Early school start times leave teens and their parents suffering the real and harmful effects of sleep deprivation.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

For a few years now, I have anticipated the beginning of each new school year with a sense of dread. Once school starts, I find myself crying over minor daily challenges, like a low gas tank or forgetting to get milk at the grocery store. I start to feel off, like I might be getting sick. Then I start to feel a sense of hopelessness — about my weight, about global warming, about the fate of my favorite college team's football season — and I realize: I know this feeling. This is the fog of sleep deprivation.

The last time I was this sleep deprived, I had a newborn. There are no newborns in my home now. Instead, I have something similarly terrifying: high school students. And they have to be at school by 7:15 a.m. every day of the school week.

Though I feared this for a long time — the memories of my own dark high school mornings are still painful — I had no idea how much the early start time would physically and emotionally affect me, even if all I do is wake up long enough to make sure my high junior and freshman are actually vertical and getting ready for school.

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It's well documented that high school students physically need later start times than they have traditionally kept, and that research is slowly spreading across the country. Chemicals in teenagers' brains change in puberty, which shifts their bodies' natural sleep cycles by two hours, explains parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa.

"Most teens cannot sleep before 11 p.m. or midnight," Gilboa told TODAY Parents, "and their bodies need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep throughout middle and high school for growing and health. Fifty-nine percent of middle schoolers and 87 percent of high schoolers get less sleep than that."

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended later start times for teenagers, and school districts around the country are starting to consider changes. In 2017, the Seattle Public Schools moved their start times for almost all middle and high school students to after 8:30 a.m. This year, again, no Seattle public high school will start before 8:45 a.m. But in most of the country, high school start times are still very, very early. It's affecting teenagers, and it's also affecting their parents.

Even if a high school student is largely self-sufficient, these early start times can still mean a rude (and early) wake-up call for their parents if they rise when their children do to help with transportation or to ensure their children don't sleep through their alarms. "I've aged 10 years in just doing the high school routine for one year!" said Brenda Lange of Longwood, Florida, who is the mother of a two high schoolers.

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"All of the health effects that are seen in kids who don't sleep enough affect adults as well," said Gilboa. "Weight gain, increased anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns, impaired sugar metabolism, elevated blood pressure are all caused by sleep deficit."

Parents who don't sleep a full 7 to 8 hours a night have increased rates of irritability, poor focus and concentration, and all of their own behavior management issues, Gilboa said. "These are a real detriment to anyone and make raising a teenager a lot harder!" she said.

Gilboa said she hopes parents will fight to change the policies in their children's school districts for healthier environments all the way around In the meantime, parents are finding their own ways to make it work.

"This is new, fresh hell for us," Dana Talusani, mom a mom of two in Longmont, Colorado, said during the first year of high school. "Showering the night before is key for us getting out the door on time. It's also forced us to be more organized than we ever thought we needed."

Talusani's daughter collects all the clothes she would like to wear for the week on Sunday mornings to make sure they get washed and ready, and Talusani bakes a batch of muffins and prepares frozen smoothie ingredients every weekend so they have quick breakfasts to grab and go.

Vera Hough, a mom of four in Little Silver, New Jersey, said she has learned to factor a long wind-down time into her bedtime routine. "The earlier I can start changing my clothes, washing my face, settling the animals — even if it's interrupted by signing spelling tests or whatever — the sooner I can get into bed, and at least my body is resting and getting the cue to head for sleep. It's crucial for me and I can seek and guard it," she said. "People go on and on about kids needing more sleep, but I think the sleep they do get is better quality, and we have to insist on quantity."

And if your child has their own means of transportation, Gilboa suggests parents consider not getting up with teens at all. "They need to be learning the skills to get themselves up and out the door without you, and those can take a while to master," she said. "So start moving them in that direction. After all, at least one of you should get some rest!"

As if anyone can sleep knowing their sleep-deprived teenager is out driving an automobile on the dark streets with other sleep-deprived teenage drivers. As me how I know. Yawn.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 20, 2016, and has been updated (by a still-sleep-deprived parent).

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