Expert Advice: How to Help Your Teen Sleep and Learn Better

An Interview with Leading Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, PhD

With students across the nation getting ready to head back-to-school, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with nationally-renown sleep doctor Michael J. Breus, PhD, to get his advice on promoting healthy sleep habits—and good grades—for teens. Widely regarded as one of the nation’s foremost authorities on getting a good night’s sleep, Dr. Breus serves as a member of Lighting Science’s Scientific Advisory Board and will be publishing his newest book, “The Power of When” in September.

PowerOfWhen1Dr. Breus, in your new bookThe Power of When,” you indicate that most teenagers have a Wolf chronotype. Can you explain what a chronotype is—and more specifically, what makes a Wolf chronotype different?

Sure. A chronotype is basically your body’s biological clock.  Your chronotype determines whether you’re a morning person or a night person, when you feel hungry, when you’re full of energy and when your need to wind down.

Based on what I’ve seen in my practice, I believe there are four basic chronotypes: Dolphins, Lions, Bears and Wolves. Most teenagers tend to fall into the Wolf chronotype, which means they have difficult waking up before 9 a.m., feel groggy until mid-day and usually don’t get tired until midnight or later.

(Laughing) As the mom of a 14-year-old, that sounds familiar! So with most high schools starting at 8 a.m., what does that mean for a teen with a Wolf chronotype?

Starting school at 8 a.m. is tough for most teens. At this age, they are biologically programmed to sleep later, so they wake up feeling groggy and may not be able to shake off that mental fog for hours.  Parents should know that their teens aren’t just being difficult.  They really are having difficulty getting up in the morning.

So how do you get a Wolf out-of-bed in the morning?

Parents may wish to look into getting their teens a dawn stimulator alarm clock, which will slowly illuminate their bedrooms like the sun. Let them hit the snooze button once, but then they need to get immediately out of bed.  If possible, have them go stand outside in the sunlight for 15 minutes.  If that’s not practical, 15 minutes of exposure to a light with high levels of blue light spectrum, such as Lighting Science’s Awake & Alert® bulb, will also have a stimulating effect and will help Wolves shake off that groggy feeling.

How much sleep do teens need?

Teens need about 8.5 to 9 hours of sleep at night. If they’re getting up at 7 a.m. to make it to school for 8 a.m., they should probably be going to sleep no later than 10 to 10:30 p.m., and most teens aren’t going to like that.

What can parents do to help their Wolves arrive at school feeling rested and ready to learn?

Getting a Wolf to school in the morning actually starts the night before. In order to help them wind down for a 10 to 10:30 bedtime, it’s critical to eliminate exposure to artificial light after the sun goes down.  Wolves are already biologically prone to staying up late, so any exposure to blue light in the evening will only further delay a good night’s rest.

I generally suggest that teens turn off the lights wherever they’re hanging out in the evening, or if that isn’t practical switching to a light, such as the GoodNight® bulb, which has most of the stimulating blue light spectrum filtered out.  Parents should also know that TVs, laptops and mobile phones emit a lot of blue spectrum, so encourage your kids to power down no later than 9 p.m. if you want them well-rested for the next school day.

sleep doctor

Dr. Michael Breus

What is blue light spectrum and why is it a problem?

Blue light spectrum isn’t inherently good or bad, but it has stimulating effects upon the body, so timing is critical. Although we don’t really notice it, light is made up of a full range of colors.  Light that looks warm and inviting has more yellow and red spectrum, whereas light that looks bright and white has more blue light spectrum.  Exposure to blue light spectrum during the day can be
great for teens by boosting their mood and helping them concentrate and learn better.  Exposure to blue light spectrum at night, however will delay sleep by preventing your teen’s body from producing the sleep hormone melatonin.  That’s why lights out at night is one of my top recommendations for promoting a good night’s sleep—and for good grades as well.

What does sleep have to do with good grades?

A lot of people are surprised to hear that pulling an all-nighter is probably one of the worst things that teens can do to prep for a test the following day. Absorbing and retaining new information actually happens during sleep, so studying for an hour or two and then going to bed is actually more effective than burning the midnight oil.  Sleep secures facts and figures in the brain so that they can be retrieved during that exam, and also frees up memory so that teens can absorb more information the following day.

Thanks Dr. Breus. These are great tips!  One last question.  Where can people go to find more information about Wolves and the other three chronotypes?

I’ve created a fun, 45 second quiz that will help people identify their chronotype.  My new book, “The Power of When,” also contains a wealth of information about the four different chronotypes, as well as practical advice about how to schedule activities such as working out, asking for a raise or falling in love for the best results.


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