Short Sleeper Syndrome

Written by Lydia Krause | Published on July 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Short Sleeper Syndrome?

Short sleeper syndrome (SSS) is a type of sleep disorder. Forty million Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder (Abad & Guilleminault, 2003). SSS, specifically, is characterized by sleeping for less than six hours a night.

Treatment for SSS is focused on helping you reset your sleep/wake schedule. Together with a professional, you will develop a new sleep schedule, and will have to adhere to it. Your long-term outlook depends upon changes you make to promote healthier sleeping habits.

Causes of Short Sleeper Syndrome

The cause of SSS is an irregular circadian sleep/wake rhythm. This pattern most often becomes distorted by your lifestyle.

Causes of SSS may include:

  • occupational changes—changing from day to night shift, getting a new job
  • lifestyle choices—regularly staying up late, or all night
  • psychological stress—job loss, death of a loved one

SSS may also be associated with your diet. Any of the following, for example, can cause SSS:

  • large amounts of caffeine can decrease sleep time
  • alcohol makes it difficult to sleep soundly
  • illicit drugs can cause hallucinations or confusion and distort sleep time

Symptoms of Short Sleeper Syndrome

Those with SSS get fewer than six hours of sleep per night. Lack of enough sleep will likely affect your daily life: you may underperform at school or at work.

Symptoms may include:

  • feeling half-asleep during the day
  • requiring at least one nap a day
  • having trouble falling asleep at night
  • having trouble staying asleep at night

Diagnosing Short Sleeper Syndrome

If you or your doctor believes you are suffering from SSS, he or she will likely want to discuss your sleep habits. Your doctor may use a special questionnaire called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ). This assessment tool contains 19 questions that help determine when you typically perform your day-to-day activities. Similarly, the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire may be used to classify “morning people” and “night people.” Both questionnaires will help your doctor help you develop better sleeping habits.

Patients may be asked to complete a sleep log to record:

  • total time spent asleep and awake
  • number of times you wake up per night

Mild sleep disorders may mask a more serious disorder, such as catalepsy. This is a condition where you instantly fall asleep at random intervals.

Laboratory tests for more serious sleep disorders include:

Polysomnogram (PSG): In this complete nocturnal sleep test, patients go to sleep in a special lab. They are monitored for changes in heart rate, oxygen levels, etc.

Actigraphy portable device: This device is usually strapped to the wrist or ankle. It stores information about physical motion and sleep. The typical test time is one week.

Treatment for Short Sleeper Syndrome

Treatment of SSS focuses on helping you regulate your sleep/wake rhythm. The human body is programmed to sleep when it is dark and wake when it becomes light. However, if you have SSS, you are likely not sleeping during these “natural” hours. Treatment will help by using light and darkness to restore the body’s natural rhythm.

Light Therapy

You may undergo light therapy to harmonize your sleep/wake rhythms to your work and social schedule. To do this, you may have to buy a “light-box.” This special machine produces a light akin to sunlight. If, for example, you work a night shift, the light box can help your body experience the night as “day”—this, in turn, will help you sleep later on.


A more drastic treatment is called chronotherapy. This cognitive behavioral technique has you adhere to a strict sleep/wake schedule. The goal is retrain your brain. The schedule is followed for one month before introducing minor changes. No naps are to be taken. You will use successive three-hour delays in your bedtime for 6 days until you reach the correct sleep amount. A sample chronotherapy schedule is below.


Bedtime Schedule


Stay up all night


Sleep 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Sleep 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Sleep noon to 8 p.m.


Sleep 3 p.m. to midnight


Sleep 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Tuesday (and onwards)

Sleep 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Outlook for Short Sleeper Syndrome

The outlook for SSS depends on how well you adhere to lifestyle changes. Light therapy and resetting your sleep schedule can be long-term solutions. However, you have to stick with these treatments for them to be effective.

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Show Sources

  • Abad, V. C., & Guilleminault, C. (2003). Diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders: a brief review for clinicians. Dialogues in Clinical Neurology, 5(4), 371-388.
  • Sack, R. L., Auckley, D., Auger, R. R., Carskadon, M. A., Wright, K. P., Vitiello, M. V., & Zhdanova, I. V. (2007). Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: part I, basic principles, shift work and jet lag disorders. Sleep, 30(11), 1460-1483.
  • Sack, R. L., Auckley, D., Auger, R. R., Carskadon, M. A., Wright, K. P., Vitiello, M. V., & Zhdanova, I. V. (2007). Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: part II, advanced sleep phase disorder, delayed sleep phase disorder, free-running disorder, and irregular sleep-wake rhythm. Sleep, 30(11), 1484-1501.

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