Easy Tips to Combat Summertime Insomnia

Don’t you love summer?  All the barbecues, outdoor festivals, vacations; school’s out, with all the freedom that goes with that.

I love summer as much as the next guy.  Many of my sleep patients don’t, however.  I’ve found that there are a couple of times of the year in which my patients experience a spike in their insomnia:  during the holidays, and during the summer.

There are several reasons why summertime can trigger or worsen difficulties falling and/or staying asleep.  First, many people and many families experience lifestyle changes during the summer as compared to during other times of the year:  kids can sleep in in the morning; vacations with jet lag; modifications in work hours or work timing; late-night parties and alcohol use.  These changes tend to dysregulate sleep schedules, leading to insomnia.  Second, it’s hot!  It’s hard to sleep when you’re sweltering and sweating in bed every night; we here in Seattle have been in a month-long heatwave, a major problem because most homes here have no air conditioning!  Third, because of the tilt of Earth’s axis during the summer, it’s light out late.  As most can easily understand, if the sun is still up in the evening, it feels naturally for YOU to stay up.  Exposure of your eyes–and hence your brain–to light has a profound impact on your sleep/wake cycles.  No wonder why people tend to have insomnia during these precious summer months!

So here are some pointers to improve your sleep for the remainder of this summer:

1.  Choose a time to awaken each morning, and stick with it.  Even if you’re not in school or not working, determine a preferred awakening time, set your alarm clock or smart phone for that time, and awaken and get out of bed that same time every morning, including weekends.  Your body clock “wants” regularity, no matter what your personal situation.  Sleeping in by several hours can throw off your body’s circadian rhythms, dysregulate your sleeping patterns, and promote delayed sleep phase.

2.  Keep your sleeping environment DARK.  Usually Venetian blinds suck at keeping out substantial light from your room when the sun is out late.  I recommend getting thick black curtains that completely cover up your bedroom window.

3.  Keep your sleeping environment QUIET.  Whether it’s motorcyclists or firecrackers outside your bedroom window, summertime often means lots of noise outside your bedroom.  Insulate your bedroom from the noise the best you can.  A fan near the bed can create a white-noise effect to drown out noises from outside.  Some may resort to sleeping in another, quieter room in the home, one that is further away from the street for example.

4.  Keep your sleeping environment COOL.  The fan in the room helps with this, obviously, if you don’t have AC.

5.  Avoid naps if you can.  Naps are tempting if you have the time and opportunity, particularly if you’re chronically sleep-deprived.  However, naps during certain times of the day–particularly the mid- to late afternoon–can cause substantial subsequent problems falling asleep later at night.

6.  Don’t spend too much time in bed.  Remember, most adults need about 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and your body generally won’t let you sleep more than what your body needs.

School is starting back up before you know it.  Enjoy the remainder of your summer!


Help Your Child Sleep Well While “Back to School”

All you parents know what’s right around the corner, if it hasn’t already happened: the start of the new school year! At least for us in the Pacific Northwest, school doesn’t start for another week, so we have one more glorious week of sun and freedom before the beginning of fall classes.  But for many of you elsewhere, school has already started in earnest.


One of the many concerns parents have as they transition back into the school year is how their children’s sleep habits will change. Many of us know the drill, from our children’s experiences or our own: all the staying up late on weekends, sleeping in ’til noon on Saturdays and Sundays, the Herculean effort necessary to get out of bed in the morning, especially on Mondays. Though this ritual is very common, particularly for teenagers, the stress and conflict arising from this chronic problem can wreck your family life, not to mention your grades.

This pattern, called delayed sleep phase, arises from the adolescent brain’s natural tendency to cycle its sleep-wake rhythms in a timing scheme that is longer than the 24-hour day. Many of us recall what it was like to be younger and wanting to stay up later and sleep in later if given the chance. The problem with this tendency is that children and teenagers usually engage in activities (i.e., school) that obligate them to entrain their sleep-wake behavior to the 24-hour clock. This conflicts with their biological inclination to go to bed later, resulting in sleep deprivation which makes it more difficult to awaken early in the morning and be awake and alert for classes. Friday night comes ’round, they stay up late, sleep in big-time on weekend days, and then find it impossible to fall asleep early Sunday night because their body clock’s sleep-wake phase has now been delayed from all the sleeping in, so all the sleep debt and sleep deprivation then roll into the new school week, perpetuating the cycle.

There is ongoing controversy about what can and should be done to improve this problem for young people and their families. Though some schools around the country have options of starting classes later in the day, many or most of us parents are obliged to ensure that our children are out of bed and ready for school at times earlier than what they, and their body clocks, “want.”

So what can be done? We can’t change our kids’ brains, though sometimes it’d be great if we could, right? Here are a few tips to help weary parents get their kids sleeping better as we kick off this new school year. As you will see below, these recommendations may be quick to read and absorb, but whether they are easy is another matter. The unfortunate reality is that making these sleep problems substantially better likely will be difficult, at least at first, requiring communication, motivation and insight from the child and patience and support from the parent.  Ready? Here goes.

1.  Minimize the “sleeping in” on non-school days by setting the alarm clock for reasonably similar times each day to the extent you can.  Kids hate this most of all.  Sleeping in dysregulates your body clock, causing nocturnal insomnia and daytime fatigue.  Sleep schedule dysregulation is why we have jet lag, for example.  If your child has to awaken for school at 6 a.m., say, but sleeps in ’til noon on weekends, and then tries to go to sleep early Sunday night, such abrupt changes in the brain would be the equivalent of flying from the west coast to the Bahamas, for example, and back, every week.  Regulating the wake-up time may well require a hard sell to the teenager; I’d rather the teen sleep in until 8 a.m. than until noon.  This lifestyle modification (and it’s a big one) gets substantially easier if done diligently for a couple weeks, but I won’t lie, it’ll be painful for all involved at first.  The child may need some, er, parental assistance in getting up on weekends.  A second alarm clock is also an option.  Put one alarm clock on the nightstand, and then put the second one further away, set for 2 minutes after the first clock, so that your teen will need to physically get out of bed to turn it off.  Make sure the second alarm clock is loud, and the more obnoxious the better.

2.  Don’t go to bed until substantially sleepy.  If the first step is done properly and done the same way every day, then this second step should fall naturally into place eventually, because the resulting sleep deprivation should make your teen become drowsy gradually earlier in the evening on weekends.  Force your child to go to bed too early, however, and residual insomnia results.  Taking advantage of children’s sleep needs allows them to fall asleep quickly and earlier (including on Sunday nights) and at the same time get proper amounts of sleep (which for children and teens can be 9-10 hours per night), both of which are important in physical and cognitive development and proper performance in school.

3.  Declare a curfew from light and technology.  Light exposure greatly impacts our levels of wakefulness and alertness; add to this the perceived need to always be constantly “plugged in” socially through mobile devices, and you have a recipe for “up all night.”  Shield your child’s bedroom from outside light and noise, such as with black thick curtains, particularly as these summer months continue to wane.  Start dimming your home’s ambient light several hours prior to the projected bedtime.  And, finally and importantly, I recommend laying off lit-screen gadgets (including iPads, laptops, and smart phones) 2-3 hours prior to the projected bedtime.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this last recommendation is actually what kids hate the most.  But complete these 3 steps, and utilize them consistently, and chances are your child will sleep better.

Best of luck to students and parents alike this upcoming school year!


Sleepy Teen? Read On

You have a teenager in the house. He’s 15. Great kid, popular, happy, fun to be around. Problem is, recently, with several months of school under his belt, he is sleepy too, all the time, falling asleep in front of you at the dinner table.


Excessive daytime sleepiness is increasingly prevalent in our society. Certainly social and academic pressures represent a potential cause. I’m constantly astounded with what so many parents now expect of their children: all the activities, sports, school projects, social outings . . . it is all just so different compared to when I was young:  everything is more, crazier, faster, more wired (or wireless), more complicated. My wife and I get caught up in that as well, I’m afraid, and though we do our best to maintain a reasonable balance to our children’s lives, their after-school hours remain dominated by what feels like an endless cascade of commitments: tae kwon do, basketball, skiing, adventure guides, student council, math olympiad, latin root class, on and on. For the most part our boys enjoy these activities and participate with relish, but I really do wonder how they’re going to find the time for additional activities or expanding interests as they get closer to high school, not to mention that all-important, precious time that should be spent with family.  Back in the day, we kids had time and space to relax, even laze from time to time. Time is just such a precious commodity now for us all.

Our planet’s population continues to grow, and subsequently so do the challenges for our children, who now must compete with a huge army of peers for a limited number of scholarships, college placements, internships, jobs, and resources. It thus seems natural–crucial, even–to push your kids to do more, accomplish more, dig deeper, become exposed to more things to give them a leg up in an increasingly competitive world. However, there’s still only 24 hours in a day. So what time is often easiest to sacrifice? You guessed . . . the time usually allocated for sleep.

Adults typically need 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night to feel fully rested during the day. Teens often need more sleep than adults, such as 9 hours per night. Teenagers need proper amounts of sleep like adults do, obviously, and in fact in many ways they need their sleep even more than adults do, considering they are still growing and developing. The effects of chronic sleep deprivation for a teenager can completely wreck one’s quality of life: daytime sleepiness, tendencies to fall asleep in class, lethargy, headaches, poor academic performance, depression, social withdrawal.

There’s another important cause of daytime sleepiness in teenagers, and it’s related to their sleep schedules. Here’s a scenario many of you will know well: Sunday night your teen has terrible difficulties falling asleep, and then finds it bloody impossible to awaken early the following morning for school. There is sleepiness all day long Monday at school, and for one or two additional nights there are residual difficulties falling asleep early, compounding the sleep deprivation. You pull your hair out as you cajole and shove your teen out of bed to get to school on time. Finally Friday night comes ’round, but your teen stays up until 1 a.m., and sleeps in like the dead until noon. This happens again Saturday into Sunday, and the cycle repeats itself, with another sleepless Sunday evening. Sound familiar?

Leaving the biochemistry out of it for now, here’s the reason why this occurs. We as humans are generally creatures of habit when it comes to sleep. Our internal body clocks are designed for us to do and feel things at certain times to coincide roughly with the 24-hour period. Our circadian rhythms dictate and regulate the timing of various inner biological processes, such as when we become sleepy or when we feel awake and alert.  When it comes to sleep, many of us have a natural tendency to become drowsy just slightly longer than every 24 hours (which can help explain why many prefer to go to bed later at night as opposed to earlier).  We are usually able to stay on the 24-hour clock because of the environmental cues (like daylight) and social cues (such as work) that “entrain” us to running our sleep every 24 hours. However, adolescents are particularly susceptible to this tendency for a delay in their bedtimes, leaving them prone to feeling awake at night and making it very difficult for them to get out of bed early for school. Things then are made worse when they allow themselves to go to bed very late on weekends and sleep in on weekends, because when Sunday night rolls around it becomes very difficult to fall asleep early. This is called delayed sleep phase syndrome.


So, parents, though this routine of trying to get your kid to bed at night and then fighting with them to wake up in the morning gets old quickly and can drive you bats**t crazy, in many ways what you’re seeing is the manifestation of normal adolescent brain biology, essentially a clash between teen physiology and our fast and furious society’s modern expectations.  I mean, if teens didn’t have to awaken at 6 a.m. to get ready for school, but instead could awaken whenever they please, this wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal, right?  In this real world of ours’, though, it’s still a problem that needs to be addressed:  countless report cards, interpersonal relationships, and family dynamics have been affected negatively by delayed sleep phase syndrome particularly in recent decades.  And if there is pre-existing sleep deprivation due to all the other stuff your teen does after school, this only compounds the problem, worsening daytime sleepiness and all of the sequelae from it.

There are a couple of recommendations that can help.  One is something your kid is guaranteed not to like:  wake up around the same time every morning, including on weekends.  This is generally much easier for adults than it is for teens, but if you don’t sleep in by 3-5 hours on weekends any longer, you will naturally become drowsier sooner at night (including Sundays), making it easier to achieve more sleep and awaken in time for school; you’re essentially then forcing your body clock into regularity, which can then improve the insomnia and total sleep time at night.  The key, however, is persistence, which sometimes can be lacking in some kids.  When I am counseling my teenage patients with delayed sleep phase, I basically become their coach, working to help them understand that they can do it, that they will do it, for the sanity of everyone around them, including themselves.  The other helpful management tool is bright light therapy, such as with a light box (2000-2500 lux) early in the morning, and the avoidance of bright light in the late afternoon to evening.  Certain medications may be useful in severe cases, like melatonin or modafinil, but these are teenagers we’re talking about, and my clinical practice has generally been to try to do things as naturally as possible in this setting.

Take-home message today:  help your teen get proper amounts of sleep by examining his or her bedtime schedules and discussing openly what could be modified to make everybody happier in the house.  As with everything else within the realm of parenting, love, communication, and the constant quest to understand are cornerstones in helping your adolescent achieve good sleep.

There will be more to say regarding circadian rhythm disorders in future posts.  It’s time for dinner now, though, so ’til next time . . . sleep well!