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Rare Conditions

How We Treat Circadian Rhythm Disorders in Children

A Gillette patient laughs with her nurse.

Practically every living thing on earth follows the 24-hour day-night cycle called circadian rhythm. (Circadian means “around the day.”) The circadian rhythm, sometimes called the body clock, affects hormones, body temperature and sleep schedule over a 24-hour period. It’s common for individual circadian rhythms to be slightly different, but most of them fall into an expected range of hours. When someone’s body clock gets out of sync with standard daytime and nighttime activities, this is called a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. This disorder can affect adults and children.

Common symptoms of circadian rhythm sleep disorder include:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Lack of daytime alertness
  • Poor concentration
  • Sleep that isn’t restful

Some events that may increase the likelihood of your child having a circadian rhythm sleep disorder include:

  • Changes to their normal routine like the start of school or family changes
  • Changing from one time zone to another (jet lag)
  • Side effects of some types of medications

A Gillette patient plays with his brother.

Circadian Rhythm Disorder Treatment

Treatments vary based on the type of circadian rhythm disorder and the degree to which it affects your child’s quality of life, but options can include:

  • Sleep scheduling: This treatment is used to help create a sleep cycle by having your child go to bed and wake up in the morning at the same time.
  • Behavior therapy: This approach encourages changes to improve sleep by developing good sleep habits. Good sleep habits include maintaining regular sleep-wake times (even on weekends and vacations) and avoiding stimulating activities within several hours of bedtime.
  • Light therapy: Bright light therapy is used to advance or delay sleep. The timing of this treatment is critical and requires guidance from a sleep specialist. Bright light therapy works by resetting the circadian clock to be more in sync with the earth’s cycle of light and dark. 
  • Medications: Melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep, and other medications may be used to adjust and maintain the sleep-wake cycle to the desired schedule. 
  • Chronotherapy: This therapy approach uses progressive advancement or delay (three hours every two days) of sleep time, depending on the type and the severity of the circadian rhythm disorder. This type of therapy requires a firm commitment, as it can take weeks to successfully shift the sleep-wake cycle. Once the desired schedule is achieved, you’ll have to help your child keep their new sleep-wake schedule.

Sleep Medicine at Gillette Children’s

At Gillette Children’s, our pediatric sleep specialists focus on diagnosing and treating sleep disturbances and sleep disorders in children and teens. We’re one of the best children’s hospitals in the nation for sleep disorders and are accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). The AASM reports the Gillette Children's Sleep Health Clinic is one of the most well-run sleep labs its surveyor has ever reviewed. 

If your child is experiencing sleep disorders that are affecting their attention, learning, behavior and other abilities, you can learn more about how our sleep clinic can help here.