Children's Hospital Colorado

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

What are circadian rhythm sleep disorders?

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders are conditions in which a person does not follow the traditional sleep times at night. Circadian rhythm refers to the natural, biological patterns people experience in a day. It controls the timing of body rhythms such as temperature, hormone levels and the sleep-wake cycle. There are several different types of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, which include:

  • Delayed sleep phase disorder
  • Advanced sleep phase disorder
  • Irregular sleep rhythm disorder
  • Non-24-hour sleep rhythm disorder
  • Jet lag disorder
  • Shift work disorder

Which is the most common circadian rhythm sleep disorder among teenagers?

Delayed sleep phase disorder is the most common circadian rhythm sleep disorder among teenagers. It is a disorder in which a teenager’s internal body clock causes them to sleep at late times. Teenagers are often described as "night owls" or are late to bed and late to rise. Occasionally, teenagers can develop a sleep disorder, in which they are unable to fall asleep until very late, have difficulty waking for school, and are severely sleepy in the daytime. In severe cases, youth may experience school failure or truancy.

What causes circadian rhythm sleep disorders?

Delayed sleep phase disorder can be caused by genes passed down from parents, which is why being a "night owl" tends to run in families.

Normally, the daily rhythm of temperature, hormone levels, light levels, meals and exercise tell your child when it’s time to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Sometimes this daily rhythm can get off course. For example, many people have experienced fatigue after traveling to a new time zone, which is known as jet lag. People get jet lag when their circadian rhythm does not match up with the normal wake and sleep times of the new environment.

As children get older and become teenagers, they experience a natural delay in their circadian rhythms and begin to go to bed later and prefer to sleep in later. If allowed, teens with delayed sleep phase disorder would go to bed very late or in the early hours of the morning, sleep soundly, and wake up refreshed in the early afternoon. Teens with delayed sleep phase disorder have extreme difficulty falling asleep at a normal time or waking up in the morning to get to school on time.

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