The impact of structured sleep schedules prior to an in-laboratory study: Individual differences in sleep and circadian timing

William R. McMahon, Suzanne Ftouni, Andrew J. K. Phillips, Caroline Beatty, Steven W. Lockley, Shanthakumar M. W. Rajaratnam, Paul Maruff, Sean P. A. Drummond, Clare Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


INTRODUCTION: Many sleep and circadian studies require participants to adhere to structured sleep-wake schedules designed to stabilize sleep outcomes and circadian phase prior to in-laboratory testing. The effectiveness of this approach has not been rigorously evaluated, however. We therefore investigated the differences between participants' unstructured and structured sleep over a three-week interval. METHODS: Twenty-three healthy young adults completed three weeks of sleep monitoring, including one week of unstructured sleep and two weeks of structured sleep with consistent bed and wake times. Circadian phase was assessed via salivary dim light melatonin onset (DLMO) during both the unstructured and structured sleep episodes. RESULTS: Compared to their unstructured sleep schedule, participants' bed- and wake times were significantly earlier in their structured sleep, by 34 ± 44 mins (M ± SD) and 44 ± 41 mins, respectively. During structured sleep, circadian phase was earlier in 65% of participants (40 ± 32 mins) and was later in 35% (41 ± 25 mins) compared to unstructured sleep but did not change at the group level. While structured sleep reduced night-to-night variability in sleep timing and sleep duration, and improved the alignment (phase angle) between sleep onset and circadian phase in the most poorly aligned individuals (DLMO < 1h or > 3h before sleep onset time; 25% of our sample), sleep duration and quality were unchanged. CONCLUSION: Our results show adherence to a structured sleep schedule results in more regular sleep timing, and improved alignment between sleep and circadian timing for those individuals who previously had poorer alignment. Our findings support the use of structured sleep schedules prior to in-laboratory sleep and circadian studies to stabilize sleep and circadian timing in healthy volunteers.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0236566
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2020


  • sleep
  • chronobiology
  • melatonin
  • young adults
  • light
  • saliva
  • circadian rhythms
  • sleep deprivation

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