Explore the science behind why your Scouts need sleep

MarApr13_YourKids_SleepIT’S 8 A.M. ON SATURDAY, and you’re not a happy camper. Although the members of the new-Scout patrol have been up and active since dawn, the senior patrol leader and half the patrol leaders are still fast asleep in their tents. The camporee competitions start in just an hour, so breakfast is looking doubtful—at best.

You’re frustrated but not surprised. The older Scouts stayed up talking half the night despite your best efforts to settle them down.

What’s going on? It’s all a question of biology, says Dr. Louise O’Brien, a research scientist who focuses on sleep issues in children at the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center. “There’s a biological reason why they can’t fall asleep early and why they struggle to get up in the morning,” she says.

During puberty, young people’s bodies start secreting a sleep-related hormone called melatonin at a different time than usual, radically altering their sleeping patterns. The result is a delayed sleep phase that lasts through—and often beyond—adolescence.

Regardless of when they fall asleep, adolescents need nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep per night, O’Brien says, while children need 10 to 11 hours. As an adult, by the way, you need a little more than eight hours.

Most kids aren’t getting the sleep they need. According to a 2006 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, only 20 percent of adolescents get enough sleep, while nearly half sleep fewer than eight hours a night. High-school seniors run the largest sleep deficit, averaging 6.9 hours. That’s the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter—and then some—every week.

The symptoms of sleepiness vary by age. Children “tend to get more hyperactive,” O’Brien says. “That’s their way of manifesting sleepiness.” Adolescents, on the other hand, have trouble focusing on tasks and often become moody or depressed. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation poll found that three-quarters of teens who say they’re unhappy or tense aren’t getting enough sleep.

An obvious solution to your problem, then, would be to let Scouts sleep as long as they want. But that would be difficult in a camporee setting. Moreover, sleeping until noon on weekends can actually be counterproductive. “The recommendation is that the sleep schedule be maintained from the weekday to the weekend,” O’Brien says.

While it can help to start the day’s activities a little later, the night before is just as important. What Scouts do before bedtime affects how quickly they fall asleep. For example, sitting around the campfire is probably a better idea than playing a round of capture the flag or flashlight tag. “It’s very hard for kids to go from doing something quite strenuous to being told to go to their tents and lie down,” O’Brien says. “Having that wind-down period at the end of the day is very helpful.”

What’s not helpful, she says, is raiding the patrol box and loading up on snacks that are full of sugar and caffeine. In other words, skip the s’mores if you want your Scouts to get a good night’s sleep.

O’Brien says adolescence is an important time to help kids develop good sleep patterns. “Good sleep is just as important as good nutrition and exercise if we want to lead healthy lives.”

On the Web: Read more about the National Sleep Foundation’s annual Sleep in America polls at bit.ly/sleepinamerica.



  1. Coming from a strict military background of 30 odd years, we have always had a set time for lights out pipe down. When on camp with our scouts I will calculate back from wakey wakey time nod that time will be the lights out pipe down time, usually around 2200 each night.

    The other thing is hat I don’t allow youth members to bring electronics with them, so no iPads, cell phones, iPods etc. parents always have the cell numbers for the leaders

  2. Even though scouts may not go right to sleep, enforce a rule of lights out, quiet talk at 2200. Not only is this courteous to fellow Scouts in the area who want to sleep, but it still gives the scouts time to share their fun events of the day in a calm, relaxed manner which will help get them to sleep. Scouts yelling, talking loudly, and being disruptive to the entire camp area does not encourage a sleep – encouraging atmosphere.

    Also, encourage thoughtfulness by training scouts not to be screaming or yelling at 6 am in the morning. Everyone has different travel plans. Please be considerate of everyone in the camp.

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