It is that time of year to make resolutions: eat healthier, exercise more, and spend more quality time together as a family. Have you ever considered healthier sleep habits as a resolution? Sleep is a pillar of health, as essential as eating, drinking, and breathing. This is true for every member of your family. But changing sleep habits (as with any habit) can be challenging, especially for children and adolescents busier than ever with homework, extra-curricular activities, and social media. Who has time to sleep?
The Basics of Sleep
There are two important factors that help us sleep. The first is our internal clock. We all have one which can adapt to new schedules in just a few days. You may have noticed this when daylight saving time starts/ends or if you’ve traveled across time zones. Our internal clock is controlled by light and dark. When it is dark outside, melatonin is released. Melatonin is a naturally produced hormone that helps prepare our body for sleep. Light has the opposite effect, keeping our body from making melatonin, which can make it hard to sleep. When children go through puberty, the timing of their melatonin moves later, by about 1 to 2 hours. This can make it hard for them to fall asleep at the early bedtime they used to follow. Thus adolescents may require a later bedtime. This doesn’t mean more time on social media and watching videos, but instead spending time in calming activities (e.g., reading, journaling, drawing) for an extra hour before bedtime.
The other primary factor is “sleep pressure,” which builds over the course of the day, making you sleepier the longer you are awake. However, on the flip side, we have to be awake for a certain number of hours before we have built enough sleep pressure to help us fall asleep at bedtime.
Sleep pressure and our internal clocks work together to help us stay awake during the day and to sleep at night. However, inconsistent sleep schedules, in particular staying up late and/or sleeping in on weekends, affect this delicate balance, making sleep more difficult, especially falling asleep on Sunday night and waking on Monday morning.
Consequences of Deficient Sleep
Deficient nighttime sleep impacts every aspect of children’s development, including physical and emotional well-being, the ability to learn, and behavior.
After a child falls asleep growth hormone is released, helping children to literally grow in their sleep. Other hormones are also regulated during sleep, including the ones that control how hungry you feel or the kinds of foods you crave. So sleep deprived children are more likely to reach for foods high in carbohydrates, including sweet treats. Studies have found a direct link between modest amounts of sleep loss and increased caloric intake in preschoolers, children, and adolescents.
For children and adolescents, their number one job is to go to school and learn. However, small amounts of sleep loss (just 30-40 minutes per night for 3 nights) is enough to cause problems with memory, reaction time, and attention – all vital for learning. In addition, modest sleep loss (1 hour per night for 5 nights) leads to increased behavior problems in the classroom, in particular difficulties with emotion regulation and impulsive behaviors. For adolescents, deficient sleep has also been associated with increased drug and alcohol use, increased depressive symptoms, increased suicidal ideation, and drowsy driving accidents. Finally, emerging evidence shows an association between deficient sleep in youth and high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance.
Making Sleep a Priority – Healthy Sleep Habits
So what is a parent to do? Make sleep a priority by modeling and following healthy sleep habits:
- Set a consistent sleep schedule for your children and adolescents. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is one of the most important sleep habits. Most children and adolescents won’t typically ask to go to bed, so it is important to set their bedtimes (and stick to them). Wake times during the week are usually set by school schedules, but be careful about letting your older child or teen sleep in too much on weekends. Although they may need to “catch up” on their sleep, their wake time should be no more than 1 to 2 hours later than on weekdays. Otherwise, as previously described, they may have trouble falling asleep Sunday night and waking Monday morning, giving a rough start to the week for everyone!But let’s face it, there are going to be late nights and sleeping in on weekends, so try your best to have this happen on Friday night and Saturday morning, waking children closer to their school wake time on Sunday mornings. Of course schedule changes are common during holidays and school vacations, but try your best to get back on schedule at least 2 to 3 days before school resumes. Forcing earlier wake times is the easiest way to do this as it will make youth sleepier at bedtime (and don’t let them nap!).
- Have a consistent bedtime routine. This is true for children of all ages and adults. Technology can turn off quickly with the off switch. But our brains work more like dimmer switches, needing extra time to wind down. So set aside 15-30 minutes before bed to have the same quiet routine every night (e.g., snack, brush teeth, lights out). While reading is a wonderful part of a bedtime routine, children should read with as dim of light as possible. If your child uses an electronic reader, make sure it is set to the dimmest setting or uses a black background and white text to reduce light exposure.
- Make bedrooms a place for sleeping. Bedrooms should be cool, dark and comfortable. Most important they should be technology free. Children and adolescents with technology in their bedrooms sleep on average 30 minutes less per night than youth without technology in their bedrooms. Remember that it only takes a small amount of sleep loss to cause problems with learning, attention, and behavior. Also, the light that comes from these devices is enough to prevent the release of melatonin, making it difficult to fall asleep, so it is best if devices are shut down 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Again, if your child uses an electronic reader, make sure that they cannot access other options (e.g., internet, apps) that could be distracting.
- Create a central charging station. Children and adolescents often want technology in their bedrooms because their parents also have it, so be a role model of healthy sleep habits, and have everyone “tuck in” their technology devices at a set time in the kitchen to charge. If the phone is doubling as an alarm clock, purchase an inexpensive alarm clock instead.
- Limit caffeine intake after lunch. Children should not be consuming caffeine, but we know that starting in preschool many children do. The effects of caffeine should still be going 4 to 6 hours after consumption, meaning that caffeinated beverages after school or at dinner (e.g., soda, iced tea, coffee) can interfere with your child’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime.
Proper citation link for this blog post:
Meltzer, L. J. (2017, January 3). Make Sleep A Priority: A New Year’s Resolution for the Entire Family. Retrieved from http://infoaboutkids.org/blog/make-sleep-a-priority-a-new-years-resolution-for-the-entire-family