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Back to school, back to sleep struggles?

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Are you battling to get your teen to turn off their devices and get to sleep on time?

Teenager sleeping in class

The transition from carefree summer days to the structure of the school year can be a tough adjustment for many youths. As the excitement of a new academic year sets in, so does the challenge of re-establishing healthy sleep habits. Teens who have been enjoying late nights and leisurely mornings often find it difficult to readjust their internal clocks to meet the demands of early school mornings. If you find your teen struggling to get enough restful sleep, you're not alone. September often brings sleep problems for adolescents, and it's important for parents to understand the underlying factors and how to support their teens through this transition.

While night owl teens tend to get a bad rap for being lazy or irresponsible, it may not be entirely their fault. It often has much to do with biology. When being a serious night owl is causing significant problems in life, it could be due to what is known as a “delayed sleep–wake phase disorder” (DSWPD), a common circadian rhythm issue for young people. It typically results in sleep disruption that not only impacts academic performance, but may also contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability.

Is your teen having back to school back to sleep struggles?

Understanding Delayed Sleep–Wake Phase Disorder

Delayed Sleep–Wake Phase Disorder (DSWPD) is a common circadian rhythm problem among youth. It occurs due to a shift in the natural sleep–wake pattern by at least two hours. Teenagers may struggle to fall asleep at a reasonable time, and then be in a deep groggy state when it’s time to get up for school.

Symptoms of DSWPD

Teenager and mom sitting on couch feeling frustrated with each other

1. Sleeping well when they are allowed to sleep late: For example, on summer vacation they stay up late and have little problem getting enough total sleep time by sleeping in the next day.

2. Difficulty Falling Asleep at an Earlier Bedtime: Even when they try hard to re-establish an earlier sleep time, they are unable to fall asleep, often leading to worse sleep problems.

3. Struggling to Wake Up on Time: Morning awakenings can become a daily battle, with grogginess causing tardiness and school attendance issues.

4. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Teens with DSWPD may experience fatigue and sleepiness throughout the day due to inadequate sleep. They tend to be irritable, have trouble concentrating, experience academic difficulties, and exhibit behavioural issues due to lack of sleep. This sleep deprivation can also impact ability or motivation to carry out household chores. Family conflict is common and bedtime can feel like a battle zone.

Addressing DSWPD

Supporting your teen's sleep habits and addressing DSWPD requires a combination of understanding, patience, and proactive strategies:

Teenager relaxing before bedtime with a cup of tea reading a book

1. Be a Role Model for Healthy Sleep Routines: Encourage a consistent wind down period of an hour of relaxing, enjoyable activities before bed time.

2. Avoid light and screen time at night: proper blue light blocking glasses can be important. (Note: The lens should be a warm colour, between amber/orange and red. Some good options found in research to be effective are Uvex Skyper or Swanwick.

3. Follow good sleep hygiene: create a cool, quiet and comfortable sleep environment, and limit stimulants like caffeine after noon or before bedtime. Remember, chocolate and many soft drinks contain caffeine.

4. Gradually Shift the Sleep Schedule: Help your teen adjust their sleep pattern gradually by moving bedtime and wake-up times by about 15 minutes earlier every 2 – 3 days, until desired bedtime and wake time has been achieved. It is usually easier to start with the earlier morning awakening, which will help make them sleepy enough to fall asleep a bit earlier the next night.

5. Encourage lots of daylight: Natural outdoor daylight can help strengthen circadian rhythm and even reduce the negative impact of light at night.

4 Teenagers hanging out outside with skateboards

6. Prioritize Consistency: Once a new sleep schedule is established, encourage your teen to maintain it consistently, even on weekends, to reinforce the routine. I know, that’s a tough sell. But sleeping late to catch up on weekends means worse sleep during the week.

7. Align Daytime Activities: Adjust meal times and activities to match the new sleep schedule and promote a healthier sleep–wake pattern.

8. Discuss with your child's physician: appropriately timed low dose melatonin and morning light can help promote an earlier bedtime and wake time. Consider a therapy light box in the winter. *These two medical treatments are best followed with the advice of your child’s physician, as they can cause unwanted side effects.

9. Consult a Sleep Professional: If sleep issues persist, we would be happy to work with you and your teen to recommend a tailored treatment plan.

Whether or not it’s significant enough to be considered a disorder, Delayed Sleep–Wake Phase can make the transition from summer to Fall particularly challenging, impacting teenagers’ sleep patterns and overall well-being.

The good news is that most teens will grow out of being a night owl - usually by early to mid-20's. In the meantime, all is not lost. There are strategies that can help shift circadian rhythms earlier, to help them feel their physical and mental best and to function well at school. With a combination of your support, informed strategies, and expert advice, you can help empower your teen to overcome sleep challenges and embrace the new academic year with vitality and focus. Here's to restful nights and successful days ahead!

Please reach out if you would like professional guidance to help your teen get their sleep – and their life – back on track.


Is your teen having back to school, back to sleep struggles? Looking for help to get your teenager's sleep back on track? Send me a message if you're interested in one-on-one sleep therapy for your teen.


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