Awake late at night? Struggling to get going in the morning? Delayed Sleep Phase, a common teenage problem.

Sleep Matters Perth Blog

Struggling to get your teen out of bed and ready for school on time? Have they become a night owl who stays up after the family has gone to sleep? Are they losing sleep and feeling tired during the day?

This can be an exasperating experience for both parents and children.

‘Delayed Sleep Phase’ can happen at any age but is most common during adolescence. Delayed sleep phase (DSP) is when a person becomes an extreme night owl. These people can’t sleep until very late at night, and then have trouble getting up on time the next morning. It is typical for a teenager with DPS to not be able to sleep until after midnight, and to be able to remain asleep until at least mid-morning. In some cases people cannot sleep until 4 or even 5am.

Approximately 7% of adolescents are thought to have delayed sleep phase.

Delayed sleep phase is in part due to the timing of certain hormones such as melatonin which helps to regulate the body clock. The main body clock is in the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus).  The suprachiasmatic nucleus receives information from the optic nerves from the eyes. Basically, bright light is a strong influence for the body clock to keep us set to the correct time.

During the teenage years, the timing of melatonin production shifts later in the day which means sleepiness doesn’t happen until later.  It also means that melatonin is being produced later into the morning which can make getting up and going on time very difficult indeed. This is a normal biological change. Indeed some US high schools have implemented later school starting times for teenagers and this has been linked to improved academic results as teens are learning when they are biologically more ready (see a summary of the research here).

So we can’t blame teenagers for wishing to stay up late and having trouble rising on time in the morning. However, there are external factors that can make  delayed sleep phase worse, and there are things that can be very effective in correcting it.

What might make delayed sleep phase worse?

  1. Sleeping in too long on the weekend
  2. Not getting some bright light in the morning on waking
  3. Using screens late into the evening
  4. Late night social media use
  5. Stress, worries or anxiety
  6. Caffeine use, especially after midday (coke, coffee, tea, energy drinks etc)

How can delayed sleep phase be corrected?

  1. Set a regular rising time each day of the week. Ideally no more than one hour variation between rising times (eg. 6-7am).
  2. Establish a regular wind-down routine in the 30-60 minutes prior to bed time so that the mind and body has had a chance to relax before turning the lights out.
  3. Screens off in the hour before bed. Screens may hamper sleep because of they stimulate brain activity and also because they emit blue light which can supress melatonin production.
  4. Watch stress levels. Is the person over-committed, or under excessive pressure to achieve? Are they experiencing friendship or family difficulty? Stress can make falling asleep much more difficult.
  5. Have a routine of exposure to bright light in the morning. 30 minutes in the sun is ideal. Light boxes and glasses are also effective for correcting delayed sleep phase.
  6. A course of compounded, short-acting melatonin taken in the evening can promote sleepiness earlier in the evening for those with delayed sleep phase.

If you suspect your child has a delayed sleep phase, some simple changes such as the above may help.

In some cases, however, external support is required to motivate the young person to make change (they need to see the changes as bringing positives for them). Please contact Sleep Matters if you’d like to discuss if we can assist.

Remember! There is a variation in how much sleep teenagers need. The average is 9 hours, and interestingly this does not change across the teenage years (12-19).

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