Sleep Education

American Academy of Sleep Medicine 

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Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm – Overview & Symptoms

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm is one of several circadian rhythm disorders. People with these disorders have sleep times that seem to be out of alignment. Their sleep patterns do not follow the “normal” sleep times at night. The sleep of patients with irregular sleep-wake rhythm is so disorganized that there is no clear sleep or wake pattern.

People with irregular sleep-wake rhythm may sleep off and on in a series of naps over a 24-hour period. The sleep pattern is broken up into pieces. This is similar to infants who may sleep for a few hours and then be awake for a few hours. If you add up all of the sleep times, the total sleep time may be normal for that age. 

During the day, it may seem like they are sleepy because they nap so much. During the night, it may seem like they have insomnia because they are awake for long periods of time during the night. Their sleep is broken up into pieces all day and all night. There is not one main sleep time that occurs at any time of day.


Someone with irregular sleep-wake rhythm may:
  • Sleep off and on in a series of naps during the day and at night
  • Have no regular pattern of when they sleep and are awake
  • Have a hard time sleeping well, or are very sleepy when they are awake
  • Have a total sleep time that is not normal for their age

Risk Factors

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm is rare. We do not even know how many people have it. It is believed that some people may have it because they have a weak body clock. This may happen in neurological conditions like the following:
  • Dementia
  • Brain damage
  • Mental disability
This can also happen in people who do not have a neurological problem. There are conditions that may make it easier for this problem to occur. Daily light and other activities are important in resetting our sleep clocks. Bad sleep habits may allow this disorder to occur in people who have weaker clocks. This is especially true for people who do not get proper exposure to daily light.
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