Sleeping through the holidays
December 20th, 2011
12:27 PM ET

Sleeping through the holidays

Last year around this time, my friend Sue called worried about her college-age son Charlie because he seemed to be sleeping away his whole Christmas vacation.

“At first, I thought, OK, he is just catching up because he was up many nights studying for finals. But now two weeks have gone by and he is still sleeping the day away.”

There are a number of reasons that college kids or teens could be sleeping all day. As my friend suspected, we do indeed try to “catch up” on sleep. It seems to work to a certain extent, but we can’t make up for the full amount of sleep lost.

Also, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that we “lose” when we lose sleep. So Charlie could have been studying (and partying?) very hard before the holiday break and would indeed have the tendency to sleep in.

However, it is doubtful that the catch-up period would last for weeks. Most teens and college kids require nine to nine and a half hours to feel their best. If they curtail their sleep for a few nights, they will usually have long sleep times for one to two nights. If they are chronically sleep deprived, then that period will be extended.

Of course, we must keep in the mind that sleeping for extended periods could be a sign of illness.

Diseases such as mononucleosis or depression can have an insidious onset marked by sleepiness and fatigue.

The sleepy college kid or teen might have developed a primary sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome (now known as Willis-Ekbom disease) or periodic limb movement disorder. Most importantly in this age group, narcolepsy should be considered.

Get some sleep: Is restless legs syndrome real?

The telltale feature of narcolepsy is daytime sleepiness, and it usually occurs in teens and young adults. People can have actual sleep attacks where one minute they are awake and the next they are asleep. They could be driving or talking to someone and without much warning, they fall asleep.

Many times, the sleepiness is not so dramatic; people can have profound sleepiness that impairs their quality of life, but still be able to fight off the sleep attacks.

The other hallmark symptom is cataplexy which is often confused with sleep attacks. In cataplexy, the muscles become suddenly relaxed and people can fall to the ground and seem to faint. Muscle relaxation is a feature of REM sleep and what has happened is that that one aspect of REM sleep has suddenly intruded into the wake state. Cataplexy usually occurs after a person is startled or has a sudden burst of emotion, often a good one such as suddenly finding something very funny. Narcolepsy can, and often does, occur without cataplexy.

Therefore, although the presence of cataplexy cinches the diagnosis, the absence does not rule out narcolepsy by any means. A suspicion of narcolepsy should be investigated with a sleep specialist.

Kleine-Levin Syndrome is another disorder that should be considered if the young person has recurrent episodes of sleepiness and long sleep times. It is a rare and poorly understood disorder marked not only by hypersomnia (sleepiness) but also by megaphagia (overeating) and hypersexuality (usually masturbation).

In the wake periods, there is almost always cognitive and mood disturbance. The episodes last anywhere from two days to four weeks and tend to recur at least once a year, although there is a tendency for them to abate over time. It is much more common in boys and young men than in women, although there is a well described hypersomnia syndrome that can occur during menstruation. The cause of Kleine-Levin Syndrome is unknown and none of the attempts at treatment has given consistent results.

An important question to ask is what time the teen went to sleep. Teens and young adults have a natural shift in their circadian rhythm such that they are naturally sleepy only later in the night, for example, midnight-1 am. And the lifestyle of young people often encourages an even more delayed bedtime.

Therefore, before you assume that your college kid has a sleep pathology that is making him sleep for 16 hours a day, find out when he finally finished gaming and when he stopped texting his girlfriend who is visiting her family in a time zone that is three hours behind.

It turned out that Charlie was sleeping 10 hours a day, from 4 am to 2 pm, which, although on the long side, is still considered well within normal limits. Staying up late, as I said, is a biological tendency that is reinforced and exacerbated by social norms in that age group. The pervasiveness of continual electronics use only makes matters worse.

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Filed under: Mind and body • Sleep • Stress

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. amerikomikey

    maybe the kid's on dope.

    December 20, 2011 at 14:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Amber Dubiel

    They are probably just bored. I am 21 years old I don't fall asleep until 2 am and I will sleep until 2pm even later if there is nothing going on. As a college student I'm not used to so much freetime and its honestly very boring so I pass the time by sleeping.

    December 20, 2011 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Todd

      Exactly in college, there is so much going on, home is just kinda boring. Especially during Christmas break. You are between semesters, there isn't any school work that you need to do, and all the stresses and strains from the semester are gone.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:50 | Report abuse |
    • ser

      get a job, amber.....then maybe you won't be one of the "occupyers" complaining that your student loans are too high...or maybe you can get a job so your parents don't have to pay for your education...let them have a retirement...bored....get a job

      December 21, 2011 at 12:15 | Report abuse |
    • Hassan C

      @Amber, what college do you go to? I am going to be applying next year and that type of lifestyle sounds appealing to me. Are there really any other downsides besides excessive free time to your college?

      January 19, 2012 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
    • etmet

      @Hassan C she said she has a lot of free time at home and at school she is busy hence why she sleeps all the time at home.

      June 19, 2012 at 10:39 | Report abuse |
  3. Anna

    Good grief, parents. I'm 22 and this is article will make a ton of parents worry when they don't need to. If you're kid is sick, you'll be able to tell. Here's why we sleep so much: we're night owls. We've gotten on a schedule of staying up into the wee hours of the morning because of homework, partying, or just hanging out. We get used to staying up until 2 or 3, sometimes 4 in the morning, and sleeping into the afternoon. Back off, let us sleep. We need it. Stop worrying so much; if something's wrong, we'll tell you.

    December 20, 2011 at 18:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. MIke

    I think I will go back to college so I can party and sleep all the time. This working all the time is for the birds.

    December 20, 2011 at 20:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Vesha

      Mike, you're hilarious. I'm 28, and in college I did the same thing. Now that I have a full time job, when I have a lot of free time, I sleep too! Ahh, those college days.

      December 22, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse |
  5. LauraS

    I'm always amazed when parents don't think back to what they did, or were like, when they were younger. Surely the parents did the same thing at that age. It's pretty normal, we all did. When I was in school I'd sleep for as long as possible as often as possible.

    December 21, 2011 at 01:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Char

    I'm 20 and I'm actually have a problem with sleeping before 3am or not getting sleepy at all, I think it was triggered by my finals week which means late nights and red bull

    December 21, 2011 at 05:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Grear

    Parents- don't worry so much. A lot of times, sleeping habits depend on what your lifestyle is like at the time. In college, I could easily stay up until 2-3 am and sleep until 12 noon the next day beacause of class schedules or not even having class on fridays. Now that I have been out of college 2 years and working a full-time job, I can't stay up past 10 pm most days and find myself waking up at 7 am even on weekends

    December 21, 2011 at 07:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andre

      Thanks for these great tips. I often feel sleepy driung the day, after lunch at work. Some of this advice will be perfect but I'm not sure I'll get away with doing press ups or star jumps in the middle of the office!

      March 5, 2012 at 21:37 | Report abuse |
  8. E.

    Wow...can we say "sensationalism for the sake of page hits?" Really Lisa? Sleep apnea or restless leg syndrom is the reason (or potentially) that college aged kids sleep late? Don't you remember when you were in school and staying up until 3 or 4am was the norm? I'm 28 now and clearly remember routinely going to bed at 3am in college regardless of what the previous hours entailed. Clearly those things change as 11pm is pushing it now and if I sleep past 9am on the wknds its an accomplishment. This article is ridiculous.

    December 21, 2011 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. labrat08

    Agreeing with all previous posts that it's entirely normal for college and high school students to sleep late while on vacation. I would never stay up later than 12:30 at the latest, but I'd still sleep till 9:30 or 10 am the next day if given the chance, and it was just because I could. My brother still does the same thing when he is home from his job as an engineer, he'll stay up late and then stay in bed till 2 because it's now such a luxury to have that much time TO stay in bed. Parents, chill out and relax. Most kids are just fine, and the ones who are not generally have other symptoms aside from sleeping a lot

    December 21, 2011 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Todd

    When I was in college my sleeping schedule rapidly changed. While before college and after college I was a day person. In college all the interesting stuff happens at night, and my Major had all the classes scheduled after 4:30 pm, So I adapted to a new sleeping schedule of Staying up to Around 3:00 am and waking up around 11:00 am – 12:00 pm. So when I came home where nothing happened at night, I went to bed early however my body was still use to waking up at noon... So I slept a lot, during vacations.
    I wasn't a big party person, but just normal social activities happened more often at night.

    December 21, 2011 at 11:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Kate B

    My daughter has extreme narcolepsy, she is 24 years old. She developed "drop attacks" around 16 years old, but it took 1 1/2 years to convince doctors to do the proper sleep study with daytime sleep latency tests. There are many people with mild forms of narcolepsy that have no idea they have a sleep disorder. People often mistake the initial signs of narcolepsy as malaise, depression, laziness and hypochodria. It is extremely important to be an advocate for your loved one, or if you have no one, insist on getting the proper tests. Do not let doctors make "educated guesses" about what they think is going on, it is better to suggest that you would like a sleep study with daytime sleep latency test to "rule out" narcolepsy or even sleep apnea. I would not stress and fill yourself with anxiety about the possibility of a sleep disorder, but I would also not be complacent and assume it is a matter of poor sleep habits. Often narcoleptics have sleep disturbances which make it difficult for them to sleep at night, and of course when narcoleptics do sleep, they are usually in REM within a couple of minutes. If you or a loved one are having problems staying awake in the daytime, do not delay. All types of physiological processes are disrupted by lack of proper sleep cycle, which can actually lead to disease states. Good luck, be happy 🙂

    December 21, 2011 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply


    December 22, 2011 at 01:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. healthnut

    Thanks for the article. It reinforces that my kid is normal:)

    December 22, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Sarah Buttenwieser

    How funny that I blogged for Teen Life about being ready to make room for my kids (teens) to sleeps during the break. LOTS: bit.ly/rz40Zk

    December 22, 2011 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ifana

      be msktaien for ALA Learning alcoelgue Peter Bromberg when the two of us are lucky enough to be on Maurice Coleman?s T is for Training podcasts at the same; and plan to die someday?which, I believe, covers all

      April 14, 2012 at 13:58 | Report abuse |
  15. alimonyjones

    @Todd: Just curious, what major schedules all classes after 4:30 PM? Astronomy, maybe?

    December 24, 2011 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. heather

    So he sleeps 10 hrs a day and they are not the 10 his mother picked? And? We don't need anymore writers. Computer programming is language and math is not that hard.

    December 26, 2011 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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      April 8, 2012 at 05:04 | Report abuse |
  17. Helen

    Since the age of about 15 (I'm now 22) I have been very sleepy. I was initially diagnosed with ME but my sleepiness got worse and worse until I was sleeping up to 22 hours a day (usually 14-18). When I finally persuaded my doctor to let me do a sleep study, I slept for 15 hours overnight in the lab and then fell asleep in the nap test. I was immediately diagnosed with idiopathic hypersomnia. I'm about to start treatment. Please don't forget IH as a diagnosis, and insist on seeing a sleep specialist if you're as sleepy as I am all the time.

    January 9, 2012 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RL

      Helen, I also have been diagnosed with idiopathic hypersomnia, almost 12 years ago (as well as fibromyalgia more recently, though I have had symptoms of it for the past 10+ years). I was diagnosed with IH after undergoing the overnight sleep study/daytime sleepiness nap test. My sleepiness/fatigue also began in my teens (I am 32 now), and I know exactly where you're coming from. What type of treatment are you about to start? Doctors I have seen haven't done much more than prescribe medication to help with alertness, but the body can build up a tolerance to those over time, and higher doses can raise blood pressure. I'm just curious as to what treatment plans are being proposed for patients now, and if they may be different or better than what I've experienced. Thanks, and best of luck to you!

      January 10, 2012 at 14:21 | Report abuse |
  18. Amanda

    I am 23 years old and I was just recently diagnosed with Narcolepsy for the past 7 years I have been struggling with excessive daytime sleepiness and I would sleep for 10+ hours whenever I could. My parents just called me lazy and told me I was tired because I was oversleeping. The older I got the more I paid attention and the more it took a toll on my like socially and emotionally. Eventually I saw a neurologist and found out that I have an actual disorder. From early teen years to young adult narcolepsy becomes prevalent and yes you should watch for the signs. It is a very serious non-curable disorder!

    January 11, 2012 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Samuel Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Thanks for the article – teens do seem to require a lot more sleep and at strange hours!

    January 19, 2012 at 14:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 29, 2012 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Teresa

    This happened when my son came home from college for Thanksgiving. He was in a very stressful program that required a lot of studio design work. Since that is the program building where it is rumored the lights are always on and they never get to sleep I just attributed it to that. However, he made the comment that no matter how much he slept he still felt tired. A light bulb went off in my head. I had recently be diagnosed with Hashimoto's Thyroid disease and had been so tired I could barely get around. Well, long story short....we had blood work done and found out his levels were almost the same as mine. Now after being treated he has been able to finish his degree and will graduate in May! I am very proud and don' t know how he made it through those first 2 years. Don't overlook possible medical problems with your college age kids.

    April 6, 2012 at 21:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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