Everyone has trouble falling asleep once in a while. But for some extreme night owls, going to bed at a normal time—and waking up when they need to for school or work—is a challenge every night. Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), also called delayed sleep phase syndrome or delayed sleep phase type, is just that: not being able to fall asleep within at least two hours of when you want to.
People with DSPD generally don’t have trouble getting good quality sleep once they do drift off. But staying up late often means not having time to log enough sleep before morning. Not surprisingly, daytime sleepiness can be a common problem, but that’s not all. Regularly skimping on sleep needs can make you less focused and productive, and it can lead to depression and other psychiatric problems. For children and teens, it can lead to behavior problems and poor performance in school.
The cause of DSPD is unknown, and a doctor will usually diagnose it by asking you to keep a sleep log and describe your symptoms. Sometimes, a doctor will have you undergo a sleep study in a clinic to make sure you don’t have any other sleep disorders. Then, a doctor is likely to recommend some of the following tricks to help you get your sleep back on track.
To shift your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) so you can fall asleep when you need to, make gradual adjustments. Shift your bedtime schedule 15 minutes earlier each night until it’s where you want it to be.
The right lights can help coax your body clock toward your desired sleep schedule. Consider using bright light therapy for a half hour in the morning (or going outside to soak up some sunshine), and then keeping your house lights dim at night as you prepare for bed.
The same healthy practices that can help anyone get better sleep can help people with DSPD, too. Avoid caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime, and log off of electronic screens for at least 30 minutes before turning in. Create a sleeping space that’s cool, quiet, and dark.
As tempting as it can be to stay up late on the weekends and sleep in when you have the opportunity, it’s especially important to stick to a regular sleep and wake schedule when you struggle with DSPD. Unfortunately, there’s no cure, so even once you’ve gotten back on track, you’ll still be susceptible to falling back into your old habits. So the more you can stick to a regular schedule, the better.
Consult a sleep specialist to find out if taking melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, might help you get your zzz’s at the right time.