Struggle Waking Up in the Morning? Delayed Sleep Onset Might Be Why
I was away recently with extended family and enjoying breakfast with some cousins. Towards the end of our meal, the table discussion veered to children and their difficulty waking up. My cousin Olivia spoke about what she and her husband, Christian, were doing to help their son find a suitable college. Olivia also commented that she didn’t know what Gianni was going to do about getting up in the mornings at college. “We have an impossible time waking him up to go to school now. I can’t imagine how he’ll be able to do that for himself at college.”
Olivia looked befuddled and continued. “I don’t know why he can’t get up. And when he’s finally awake it’s like the end of the world. He just can’t get with it. He’s so tired.”
Being the Sleep Science Coach that I am, I asked, “What time does Gianni get to bed?”
“Not too late. He goes to bed around 11ishpm. But, he sleeps and sleeps and sleeps. And, on the weekends, he stays in bed until 1pm. I don’t know what to make of it. But, Christian said he also couldn’t wake up as a kid. So, I guess Gianni takes after his father. I just don’t know how he’s going to manage at college.”
To get to high school on time. Gianni needs to get up at 6:30am. Doing some quick arithmetic in my head, I knew that 7 ½ hours of sleep a night could cause sleep deprivation, especially for a teenager. But, Gianni’s need to sleep until 1pm on weekends seemed excessive. It also provided an important clue, i.e., Gianni had an enormous sleep debt! Far greater than lacking an hour or so a night might produce.
“When Gianni goes to bed, does he have his phone with him or anything like that?”
“I think so. I don’t really know. But, I doubt he’s looking at his phone all that much anyway. Christian says he was the same way when he was Gianni’s age.”
What’s Going On?
Gianni may be experiencing delayed sleep onset which happens all too often these days amongst teenagers and young adults.
What is delayed sleep onset? Pretty much what it states. A person habitually falls asleep way too late. The late hour of falling asleep is not due to insomnia, (involuntary), but is a deliberate choice. The person for whatever reason wants to stay awake.
Please note the difference between what time one gets into bed and when one actually falls asleep. Many of our young people today are in bed awake, while everyone else in bed asleep. What are they doing? Frequently it involves playing video games, communicating on social media, talking on the phone, watching tv, listening to music, reading, etc.
I met with a late 20-something client recently who’s chief complaint was feeling very tired and having great difficulty waking up for work. She wanted relief. After discussing her situation, I learned she stayed awake in bed until 2am every night because she wanted to watch whatever was hot on Netflix. She didn’t want to feel left out when her friends talked about the latest shows. And, she didn’t make the connection between staying up so late and feeling miserable day after day.
Let me assure you that not falling asleep until so late poses a lot of problems. Of course, if we’re only averaging 4 to 6 hours of sleep a night, inevitably we’re going to feel incredibly tired. To be healthy, feel refreshed and wake up without an alarm in the mornings, the vast majority of us truly do need approximately 8 hours of restorative sleep a night.
Second, our human body rhythm operates more or less in the same 24-hour circadian rhythm sun cycle. We’re supposed to rise with the sun, be awake and energized during the day and eventually wind down with the setting of the sun. Our body rhythm also includes the rhythm of melatonin release. When darkness falls in the evening, melatonin, the sleep hormone, is released. Within an hour or 2 of melatonin release, sleepiness occurs. In a healthy sleep cycle, (8 hours of sleep a night with sleep time occurring between 10pm-6am approximately), melatonin is released close to 9pm. The hormone stays elevated in our bodies throughout the night until about an hour of so before sunrise. That’s when melatonin shuts off and cortisol kicks in to wake us.
Rhythmically, melatonin should be in our bodies approximately 9 hours which flows with the circadian rhythm. The key to melatonin release is darkness. Imagine someone watching television the entire evening all the while being exposed to wake-up blue light. The blue light exposure will confuse the brain by making it think it’s daytime. If the brain thinks it’s daytime, melatonin will not be released as it should.
Now, imagine it’s 11pm and your teenager goes to bed. What you may not know is what’s going on once they’re in bed. If they are using cell phones or any electronic device, the blue light emitted from the devices will continue to trick their brain. Consequently, melatonin release is postponed. Your child won’t necessarily feel tired at the time because the brain thinks it’s daytime. When your young one finally tires out and it’s lights out for real – all electronic devices are shut down – it’ll take at least an hour for melatonin to be released. In some cases, the child’s melatonin won’t enter their blood stream until 3am.
If they need to get up by 6:30am, it’s easy to see how sleep deprived they will be. They’re going to feel wiped out. Here’s the thing though. They’ll be exhausted not only because of not having enough sleep hours. What adds gasoline to the exhaustion fire is their 9-hour melatonin cycle has not ended for the night. And, chances are it won’t end until close to noon when melatonin will decrease and cortisol will start to energize them.
Both sleep deprivation and an unhealthy melatonin cycle will keep your child sleepy, irritable, anxious, depressed as well as jeopardize their ability to function at school or anywhere. They will be at risk for serious accidents. Sleep deprivation can also put your child in harms way for many serious health issues in the future.
What To Do
Delayed sleep onset is a serious matter for any and all. The first step to correcting the condition is to know as best you can when you or your child are actually falling asleep. It’s imperative to get a sense of the number of hours you and/or your child are asleep. I also strongly recommend you include your child in the discussions about delayed sleep onset so they can be a part of their own solution.
Start the changes slowly. If your child turns off their phone at 2am, encourage and guide them to shut off their device by 1:45am. Do that for a couple of nights. Then continue the asleep time adjustment by going to sleep 15 minutes earlier for a couple of nights again and again. Doing this would progress from 1:45am sleep time to 1:30 to 1 and so on. Keep this up until you and they get to a bedtime that provides 8 hours of sleep each night.
Communication is key here. Everyone needs to understand the importance of restorative sleep and why what they’re doing is harmful. You and they also need to understand why they’re staying up so late and what value it has. You will be asking them to give something up and your understanding and empathy of that is very important.
Finally, nothing has to be perfect. Even if your child will only cooperate up to 50%, that’s 50 percent closer to better health and well-being than they currently are.
If you found this article helpful, please pass it on to anyone you think may benefit.
Also, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me know.
Susan D’Addario, Author, Certified Sleep Science Coach, and Founder of Back-To-Sleep, helps people struggling to get a good night’s sleep so they can finally sleep soundly again and feel rested and ready to take on the world.