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Harvard Researchers Debunk Popular Sleep Myths in New Study

Researchers at Harvard Medical School found stark discrepancies between the truth on adolescent sleep habits and what caretakers of teens believe.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School found stark discrepancies between the truth on adolescent sleep habits and what caretakers of teens believe. By Jonathan G. Yuan
By Caroline K. Hsu, Sabrina R. Hu, and Jeffrey Q. Yang, Contributing Writers

A Harvard-led team of researchers debunked popular myths parents and caregivers believe about adolescent sleep habits in a study published last month.

The study, published in “Sleep Health,” was led by Rebecca Robbins, a Harvard Medical School instructor and sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and included Judith A. Owens, professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The researchers identified the most prevalent sleep myths about adolescents and enlisted sleep experts to assess the myths’ veracity. The team then surveyed a nationally representative sample of parents and caregivers about the myths.

The study concluded that over two-thirds of survey respondents believed the three most prevalent myths about adolescent sleep: sleeping in on weekends is no big deal, later school start times will lead adolescents to stay up late, and melatonin supplements are safe.

“Number one was that going to bed and waking up late on the weekends is no big deal for my teen as long as they get enough sleep during that time. Now, 74 percent of caregivers reported that this was true,” Robbins said. “This is a myth.”

In an interview, Owens said she was motivated to conduct the study because of the prevalence of myths surrounding sleep among caregivers.

“I see a lot of adolescents in my sleep clinics. A lot of times parents will come in with these ideas about sleep and why their adolescent isn't sleeping well or why they're sleeping during the day,” she said. “From that standpoint, as a clinician, I thought it was really important to pursue this study.”

Researchers cited studies that demonstrated that schools delaying start times would result in adolescents getting more sleep, despite 69 percent of respondents believing it would result in less sleep.

“When we delay school start times, adolescents thrive: They're able to get more sleep, better maintain their mood over the course of the day, and succeed in the classroom,” Robbins said. “If we think about education, that's really what we're there to do: set our young people up for success.”

Owens said the ideal school start time should be 8:30 a.m. or later, citing a measure recently passed in California that required public high schools to start no earlier than 8:30.

Robbins said personal habits are equally important to improving adolescent sleep health. Adolescents could modify their sleep routine to reflect the finding that sleeping in on the weekends is actually not a good way to pay back lost sleep, contrary to popular belief. A 20-minute nap would be a better alternative, she said.

“That's one example of a modifiable behavioral change that parents and caregivers and adolescents could have a conversation about,” she said. “We think about changing their routines to better align with the evidence and the evidence-based ways to repay the lost sleep that they may be getting on the school nights.”

The researchers said they hope their study persuades both audiences — individual caregivers and institutions.

“Certainly, that's the goal in science: to do research that's meaningful and hopefully, change behaviors and policies,” Robbins said. “This paper could potentially be a tool for parents that wish to lobby in their school system to delay school start times.”

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