Circadian Rhythms and Chronotypes: Larks, Hummingbirds, and Owls
Circadian rhythm, often referred to as our internal clock, is any biological process that occurs within a 24-hour cycle. With regards to sleep, a person's circadian rhythm determines when he/she is alert or sleepy. These sleep patterns are referred to as chronotypes. According to mainstream science, people fall into one of three chronotypes: larks (early risers), owls (late sleepers), and hummingbirds (those who float back and forth between the two).
With no universally agreed upon time range for each of these chronotypes, small fluctuations in defining these terms has resulted in inconsistencies when collecting data. Research estimates that somewhere between 10-30 percent of the population are owls. With society set up primarily for larks, a significant portion of the population is left to adapt.
Research agrees that a person's chronotype is largely tied to his/her genetics. While small behavioral and environmental changes can help support a better night's sleep, a person's genetic sleep disposition tends not to change. This is not to say that a person's chronotype can't biochemically fluctuate at pivotal points in his/her life, such as during growth spurts, puberty, pregnancy, recovery, acute stress, and as hormone levels change during in the aging process.
It's important to understand that an owl will always be fighting his/her natural sleep patterns to catch the school bus at 6:45am or to be alert and ready to problem-solve at that 8am work meeting. These types of early morning demands cause owls to rack up a sleep debt.
Our Story: Baby Owl vs Mama Lark
I am a lark. I'm no good to anyone after 9pm. I rise early and need to be in bed by 9:30pm (although as a mother of three, that rarely happens). Even during high school and college, when being a night owl tended to be the norm, I preferred the lark pattern of sleep. My friends would call my home at 9pm and my mom would tell them that I was already in bed.
Other than the friendly jabs at my expense for being in bed so early, though, my chronotype is built for societal success. I rise early, giving me plenty of time to prepare myself for the day, and am most productive in the morning and early afternoon (hello school and typical work force day!) Lucky for me, I'm a lark and always have been.
My oldest daughter is an owl and always has been. By the age of two, my nocturnal child was successfully staying up late. She would come out of her room for any number of reasons while I was still up, but she would mostly stay put once I went to bed.
In the morning, I would wake up to find her asleep amid fabulous toy worlds that she had created overnight, with toys and books strewn about that had been put away the night before. She was being curious and creative. Unfortunately, it was when I wanted her to be sleeping.
Systems are not already set up for her to thrive, so we've had to create them. We made several attempts to switch her sleep schedule, which never resulted in any lasting change. I decided to adapt. I knew how important sleep was in her development, and I was no longer willing to disrupt her sleep pattern in a futile effort to get her on my desired schedule.
The reality was, she was getting plenty of solid, sound sleep. It just wasn't at the times her mama lark preferred. With some mental shifts and work adjustments, however, we accommodated. Then she started kindergarten.
The demand of having an early morning start-time was a problem. The sleep debt my daughter accrued by the end of the school year took a toll on all of us. Initially, I tried to get her to bed by 8:30pm. That never worked. She just couldn't sleep.
We eliminated the things that could artificially influence a late night sleeping pattern (see suggestions below). It helped a bit, but she was still, by default, a night owl. Additionally, without anything constructive to do in her bed in the dark, she would inevitably come out of her room with questions and concerns throughout night, leaving us both exhausted.
This is when we began to make major changes in our lifestyle that have ultimately had a positive impact on everyone's sleep. After all, there's nothing wrong with being an owl!
Charcoal and watercolor painting, by my oldest, of her two younger sisters.
Completed at night when she, for all practical purposes, should have been asleep.
Owls Rule: Let Owls be owls
Many studies have been conducted in the area of sleep and research supports the following: (more information can be found here: Huffington Post)
1. Owls tend to have higher IQs compared to both larks and hummingbirds.
2. Owls tend to be more creative. Life with my owls proves this almost daily. There's even a group called The Night Owl Society for creative types who prefer to work in the dark.
3. Owls exhibit "night strength." Research has shown that owls often have a burst of physical energy and strength that occurs at around 9pm. This explains why my husband (also an owl) finds "inspiration" to rearrange our furniture at around the time I'm ready for bed.
4. Owls actually exhibit more "alert" hours compared to larks when allowed to follow their natural sleep pattern.
And there it is.
The catch to helping your nocturnal child thrive: How do you support your owl's natural sleep pattern while simultaneously encouraging them to integrate into the larger community. Luckily, there are things that can be done to modify, accommodate, and support your owl so that he/she is not constantly operating with a sleep deficit.
Trying to force sleep is a futile effort and new research suggests that night owls have a 10 percent higher risk of death if forced to adhere to a lark sleep pattern, primarily due to acquiring a sleep debt. You just can't override genetics. You can, however, make sure that your child's sleep pattern isn't artificially exaggerated.
Environamental and behavioral influences on sleep: Controlling artificially altered sleep patterns
While these environmental and behavioral changes may not change an owl into a lark, it could be the difference between going to sleep between 11pm-midnight vs 1am-2am. Here's what to look at:
1. Too much caffeine. In my opinion, children should not be consuming caffeinated beverages at all and teenagers shouldn't be consuming them after 2pm. Also, while I am not a fan of any soft-drinks, if you are looking for a caffeine-free option, be sure to check the label as not all root beers, cream sodas, or orange sodas fit the bill. Additionally, there are many other food items that contain caffeine that should also be avoided in excess, such as chocolate, protein bars, and energy or vitamin drinks.
2. Too much time screen time. Reduce you child's overall screen time during the day and turn off screens an hour and a half before bed (to promote the production of the nighttime hormone melatonin). This is a rule in our house. Even as a homeschooling family that supports autonomy and self-direction, this is a non-negotiable.
As a school psychologist, I have worked with many families that find this difficult to manage, especially as kids get older and their homework demands often requires late nights on a computer. I understand and sympathize with this issue. My best advice is to try and have your child do electronic work shortly after coming home and save book work and reading for later in the evening.
Additionally, as a parent, get involved in school board meetings and bring up the topic of "academic electronic demand." You have research at your disposal that supports the reduction of screen time across the board for all students.
3. Lack of movement during the day. Our bodies are built to move. Research shows that all systems in the body, including sleep, work better when a person gets a moderate amount of exercise. At least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (sleep studies indicate exercising at a moderate intensity level is more effective than at high intensity) in the morning or early afternoon (exercising causes your body temperature to rise and it can take up to six hours for it to return to normal) is ideal.
4. Eating and Drinking too close to bedtime. Having a full stomach and/or bladder is not ideal for sleep. If your child is still in the process of digestion, falling asleep may be difficult and, depending on what was eaten, can result in acid reflux/heartburn. Some foods can even cause a sugar spike and subsequent drop that can disrupt a person's sleep pattern. Sleep can be disrupted by the need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night (especially for younger kids), so even too much water right before bed can pose a sleep issue.
5. An undiagnosed or untreated allergy or intolerance.
Studies show people with allergies, particularly seasonal allergies or hay fever, have more difficulty sleeping and are more than twice as likely to suffer from sleep disorders. Getting your child's allergies under control is an important step in addressing any disturbances in sleep.
My daughter is allergic to grass. We take a holistic approach in addressing her allergies (see 9 Natural Remedies provided by Wellness Mama) and have found (via an elimination diet) that dairy and other higher histamine foods exacerbate her congestion and inflammation. We have found what works for her ultimately through trial and error, even while under the care of an immunologist and allergist.
6. Too many toxins.
Our bodies are bombarded daily by toxin exposure. Most of these toxins are swept away by the brain during sleep. However, if sleep is disrupted or shortened, the body may be challenged with a toxic buildup that can further disrupt sleep.
In today's society, there is no way to eliminate all of the body's toxic exposure, but by making some environmental changes, many of them can be avoided, thus aiding the body in the sleeping process. Rodale's Organic Life offers this helpful article to get started: Banish These 12 Household Toxins From Your House.
Additionally, I would suggest testing your water and using household water filters to eliminate chemicals in your drinking and bathing water as well as consuming organic whole foods when possible.
DIETARY CHANGES TO HELP SUPPORT SLEEP
This following information was provided by Sara Fields, NTP, RWP, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and owner of Wellness Intentioned. Sara has been an asset to our family and has a wealth of knowledge regarding nutrition and how to support children with exceptionalities. The following nutritional information has been monumental in supporting my nocturnal child, and Sara has graciously allowed me to share it here:
When looking at sleep from a nutritional perspective, it’s important to look at both aspects of a person's circadian rhythm: sleeping and waking. By encouraging melatonin production and appropriate cortisol production, we can help support both ends of the sleep cycle.
Melatonin, is a hormone that is released at night to signal our bodies that it’s time to sleep. To encourage melatonin production, one of the key considerations, as mentioned above, is the reduction of blue light. This type of light, which is emitted by screens, lamps and overhead lights, suppresses melatonin, and will delay the initiation of sleep.
Furthermore, tryptophan, an amino acid and important precursor to melatonin, can have profound effects on poor sleep, sleep disorders, and mood disorders. It’s one of nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce.
However, some research indicates that the tryptophan obtained from food alone cannot cross the blood brain barrier, and therefore cannot increase serum levels of tryptophan. In order to actually raise tryptophan levels high enough to have effects on melatonin (and serotonin) levels, one could incorporate tryptophan or 5-HTP supplements.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released in the morning hours to wake your body from rest. One of the common disruptors of cortisol is blood sugar imbalance. When blood sugar levels aren’t stable, drops in blood glucose can trigger an emergency cortisol response, which commonly occurs during sleep, and can play a huge role in sleep disturbances.
In situations where one’s cortisol levels are low, (from continued blood sugar issues or other stressors), it can be very difficult for the body to get the appropriate cues it needs to awake rested in the mornings.
In order to support blood sugar balance one must reduce, if not eliminate, sources of refined carbohydrates, such as breads, cakes, pasta, cookies and any other foods containing refined flours or sugars. Be sure to read labels and take a look at the sugar content of foods and beverages, as there are many products that actually contain larger quantities of sugar then you would suspect (such as spaghetti sauce, granola, and soup).
For some people, even unrefined carbohydrates and sugar (in its natural form) are too much, and sources such as grains and fruits will also need to be limited to correct an imbalance.
3. Omega-3 and Vitamin D
Other considerations for supporting optimal health, despite variances in sleep patterns, are increasing omega-3 intake and ensuring in-range levels of vitamin D (best absorbed by sunlight UVB rays). Omega-3s can help mitigate inflammation caused by disrupted sleep, and vitamin D helps to support the immune system.
(The above excerpt was provided by Sara Fields, NTP, RWP, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and owner of Wellness Intentioned.)
OK, But We STILL HAVE AN OWL IN THE HOUSE: Now What? Accomodate and Modify
After eliminating artificial influences and offering nutritional support, you should be better able to assess your child's actual sleep preferences. If he/she is still showing an alertness at night and difficulty in early mornings...congratulations, you have an owl.
Here's what we have done to help support our gifted and creative nocturnal child (who tends to fall on the more extreme end of the owl spectrum):
1. Go to bed later. Sounds counter productive, but when we put our owl to bed early, contrary to her natural circadian rhythm, the frustration and stress created made the night longer with no real gain in sleep. Our overall relationship suffered and we were all left frustrated.
At around 7 years old, we started putting her to bed later than what was typical for her classmates (between 9:00-9:30pm), and she was actually falling asleep earlier than when we put her to bed at 8:30pm.
2. Read or write if sleep isn't happening. Electronic devices notwithstanding, reading and writing has been known to aide people in their quest for sleep. Allowing our daughter these tools when sleep just isn't happening has helped reduce her anxiety surrounding bedtime. As my daughter has gotten older we have added drawing/sketching to the list of her nocturnal activities since she loves art and finds the practice soothing.
3. Bathe then use lavender essential oil. Water and lavender both help calm the body. We use lavender oil two ways to help promote sleep: we diffuse it in the air and also use it (along with a carrier oil) on our kids' feet before bed. My favorite oils come from Young Living Essential Oils and Mountain Rose Herbs.
4. Do everything the night before. In an effort to allow her to sleep as long as possible in the mornings, we have everything needed for the morning ready the night before.
5. Occasional melatonin sleep supplement. While this suggestion should not replace the aforementioned strategies to encourage natural melatonin production, there are times when a good nights rest within a more traditional schedule is imperative. On these occasions (need to catch an early plane or heading out-of-town for a morning soccer tournament, etc.) we give our daughter a 1mg melatonin supplement before bed to encourage sleep.
While studies do not show any negative side affects from using melatonin, we do not choose to rely on these supplements daily. There is evidence that supports using melatonin supplements as a sleep aid with children on the Autism spectrum or children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, as their melatonin production has often been measured to be naturally low.
To read more regarding melatonin supplements check out the Today's Parent article: 6 Things to Know About Melatonin For Kids. We use Zarbee's Naturals: Sleep with Melatonin Supplement
6. Modify School Schedule.
Late starts, particularly in middle school and high school, are possible. While everyone in the administration will try and steer you clear of this option, as it messes with the school's daily attendance records and funding, it is a viable option for the significantly sleep deprived nocturnal teenage child.
As a school psychologist, I have manipulated many student schedules to allow for this. I personally would choose this route prior to using sleep medications, which are often prescribed by a child's doctor when parents express issues with morning class attendance.
(yes, that should be alarming!)
Schools are well aware that starting later would be beneficial for many kids (remember, many teenagers fall into the owl category, if temporarily, due to significant hormonal changes). In fact, two high schools I worked with were considering making their school's start time later as far back as 15 years ago, but it was shot down due to after-school sports. Practices and games would have to be pushed back causing some logistical issues.
The research is there and has been for a long time. Starting the school day later increases attendance and participation, resulting in an increase in test scores. If you would like to read more, this article from Time Magazine can get you started: Teens May Do Better When School Starts Later.
Allow the research to fuel your advocacy for later start times with your school district. Every informed parent speaking up can make a difference.
In the end, we chose to homeschool our three kids. While having an owl wasn't the primary reason we chose to homeschool, not needing to be at school early in the morning was certainly a benefit. Homeschooling allows my daughter the opportunity to get a full night's sleep naturally, which is so important for developmental growth.
We still adhere to most the of things mentioned above with the exception of getting my daughters lunch ready and clothes laid out the night before. Routine in sleep is still beneficial, but now, she gets to follow her naturally and genetically derived sleep routine.
As for learning to join the early bird work force...well, she's one of those creative types that'll probably be working non-traditional hours. She won't be entering it with a sleep debt, though, and for that I am thankful.