An increasingly important life skill: sleep
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
All too often, when I ask children at morning drop-off how they’re doing, they respond, “I’m tired.” Sometimes, it’s because they were up late studying for a test or finishing an essay, but just as frequently, they will say “I just couldn’t sleep last night.” As we know, there can be a variety of reasons for tossing and turning during the night. An April 16 Harvard Gazette article called “Insomnia in a Pandemic” states “Even in normal times, approximately 30 percent to 35 percent of the population experiences acute, or short-term, insomnia.”
Like so much else in our lives, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our sleep patterns. According to a Help Guide blog, our current situation may be harming sleep in the following ways:
- Increasing stress and anxiety
- Disrupting our daily schedules
- Creating feelings of isolation
- Forcing us to spend even more times in front of screens
- Consuming more alcohol
- Promoting unpleasant dreams.
While these trends may be affecting the sleep patterns of adults, some can be just as significant for children. So, what to do?
There is quite a bit of agreement among experts on some basic tips to improve sleep during these challenging times. A TED Talk by sleep expert by Matt Walker contains 6 tips for getting a better night’s sleep.
- Regularity. Walker advises people to go to bed and wake up at the same time so our brains and bodies can develop a routine. “And the reason is because deep within your brain, you actually have a master 24-hour clock. It expects regularity and works best under conditions of regularity, including the control of your sleep-wake schedule.”
- To paraphrase from the musical “West Side Story,” “keep cool.” Our bodies need to drop the internal temperature by 3 degrees Fahrenheit, and although 65 degrees may sound frigid, Walker recommends it as the ideal temperature.
- Aim for darkness. Turning screens off may be the most effective but most contentious recommendation in a house with children. While the perfect amount of time may vary, we should encourage/require children to put away all screens at least a half-hour before bedtime.
- When we can’t sleep, Walker counsels that we “walk it out.” “And the general rule of thumb is if you’ve been trying to fall asleep and it’s been 25 minutes or so, or you’ve woken up and you can’t get back to sleep after 25 minutes, the recommendation is to get out of bed and go and do something different. And the reason is because your brain is an incredibly associative device. The brain has learned the association that the bed is this trigger of wakefulness, and we need to break that association. And by getting out of bed, you can go and do something else. Only return to bed when you’re sleepy.”
- Many studies advise us to avoid alcohol and caffeine. Although this tip may not apply as much to children, we should guide adolescents to abstain from caffeinated beverages by the late afternoon. They may argue that it doesn’t affect their sleep, but for the majority of teens, it will.
- Finally, Walker proposes creating a wind-down routine. While there may be times when we’re so exhausted that we fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow, more often setting ourselves up for a good night’s shut-eye demands a gradual approach. “Sleep, as a physiological process, is much more similar to landing a plane. It takes time for your brain to gradually descend down onto the firm bedrock of good sleep. In the last 20 minutes before bed or the last half an hour, even the last hour, disengage from your computer and your phone and try to do something relaxing.” Different people may have varying methods for slowing down and preparing for sleep; the key is to find something that works for each individual and make that a habit.
For children, there may be no better place to start than curling up with a good book before turning off the light. It gets them off the screen where they have already spent so much time (particularly during this pandemic), changes the routine of the day, reduces anxiety, and allows the brain to slow down so children can ultimately fall asleep and stay asleep. Whatever habit you create, we wish you sweet dreams.