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AUGUST 14, 2006
  Expert Advisory: Transitioning Back to School in the Fall Is Tough for Some Sleepy Students
  Penn Sleep Physician Shares Advice for Parents of Teens Who Suffer From Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome

(Philadelphia, PA) - Every time “back to school” season rolls around in the fall, Grace Pien, MD with the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Division of Sleep Medicine, sees teenagers being dragged into her office by parents. The teens complain it’s hard to get to sleep at night. After several follow-up questions, Pien often determines that these patients are suffering from a sleep disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) - when your body’s circadian rhythm makes you want to go to bed much later than what’s considered to be a normal bedtime.

“It happens in adolescents and young adults. When a patient comes in, they think they’re suffering from insomnia, saying they go to bed around 11 p.m. but have trouble falling asleep until hours later. If you dig deeper with them, they’ll tell you that on the nights they stay up late, they have no difficulty falling asleep and once they do go to sleep, they stay asleep until late morning or early afternoon,” Pien explains.

Pien adds that these so-called “night owls” have difficulty making it to morning appointments or school. “The schedule they are on is not the same schedule as rest of the world. They have normal sleep cycles, but they just can’t fall asleep until very late. Part of it is ‘how you’re wired’ and part of it is attributed to late-night social behaviors.”

Pien says the delayed sleep phase syndrome is treatable. For most people, once an external schedule is imposed upon them for work or school where they have to get up early, they are able to adjust their sleep habits, go to bed earlier, and meet their obligations. But for others, there is a real difficulty in adjusting to an earlier sleep schedule and they should see a sleep physician for behavior modification or bright light treatment.

As we gear up for this year’s “back to school” season, Pien has this advice for the parents of teenagers, who have been used to staying up late on those summer nights:

  • Have your teen stick closely to a strict “sleep and wake schedule” so your teen isn’t going to sleep too late.
  • Align that schedule with where you want it to be (for example - to bed at 10 p.m. and up by 7 a.m.).
  • High School students still need 8-9 hours of sleep a night to function well the next day.
  • Be aware, sneaking in just one or two late nights can make the body’s circadian rhythm slide right back into the old delayed schedule.


  • DSPS is a disorder of the body's circadian rhythm, perhaps caused by a diminished capacity to change the times the body sleeps and wakes on a daily basis.
  • If you suffer from DSPS, you tend to fall asleep very late at night and have trouble waking up at a normal time in the morning for work or school.
  • Approximately 7% of adolescents are estimated to have DSPS.
  • Sleep doctors can diagnose DSPS through an interview and a sleep log.
  • DSPS has no known cure, however there are treatments to manage the chronic sleep disorder.

One final note, Pien adds that in some parts of the country, there is now a move underway to delay or push back the start time for high school students because adolescents tend to suffer from lengthened circadian rhythms. The thought behind this is that teenage students would function better in school if they could sleep later in the morning.


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