Life is so busy nowadays, it can seem nearly impossible to fit in all of the things we need to do, and the first thing to suffer is often our sleep.
As a pediatric psychologist, I’ve observed firsthand the many ways that being short on sleep can impact the well being of kids and families; and as a working mom, I’ve lived through the many practical challenges that can get in the way of making a good night’s sleep a reality.
What follows are the suggestions that have best helped my patients and my family to promote physical and mental well being through rest.
1. Good sleep hygiene starts during waking hours
Many of us spend most of our daytime hours indoors with limited natural light, and during winter we may even enter and leave work in total darkness. Meaningful exercise can often be elusive, as well, when schedules are busy. In order to create a need for sleep, we must provide our bodies with the sunshine, fresh air, and physical activity that serves as a cue to set our circadian rhythms. In other words, our daytime environment and activity helps our body build up a need for sleep. By exposing ourselves and our children to light throughout the day beginning from the time we wake up, and providing opportunities for meaningful physical activity and exposure to fresh air whenever possible, we can support our body’s understanding of when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to rest again.
2. Mind your electronics
Just as our daytime activities provide cues that build up our sleep drive and establish circadian rhythms, our evening activities do the same. If we are surrounded by artificial light from lamps and electronic devices, our bodies receive signals that indicate it is wake time. By dimming lights in the hours leading up to bedtime and eliminating screen time one hour prior to sleep, we can help our bodies to produce melatonin and better fall into a restful state. For some families, changing over to a “screen-free zone” before bed is a challenging or impractical transition. In such cases, limiting exposure to electronics or utilizing dimmers can be effective alternatives.
3. Develop a solid bedtime routine
In order to provide the brain with additional cues to help it shift into sleep mode, engaging in a similar sequence of activities at the same time each day can be invaluable. Beginning an hour before bedtime, choose from a handful of non-stimulating activities (e.g. shower or bath, art, quiet play, board games or puzzles) that can be completed over a period of 30 minutes. For 10 minutes following, engage in another quiet activity (preferably the same each night) such as eating a light snack, washing up and brushing teeth, or saying goodnight to other family members or pets on the way to your room. Over the next 15 minutes, getting comfortable is key. Choose from a small variety of activities such as listening to music, reading a book or writing in a journal. Finally, in the five minutes before sleep, provide a signal to the brain that it is time to power down. This ritual can include a breathing exercise, meditation, visualization, or even just a kiss and catchphrase exchanged between partners or parent and child.
4. Set the scene for a solid sleep
Keeping your sleep space cool, dark and quiet is key. Relying on room darkening shades, ensuring proper temperature control and ventilation, and sleeping in sleepwear that promotes a comfortable body temperature can all help to create ideal conditions for sleep.
5. Learn about the power of sleep associations
This is particularly important if you have infants or young children. We all stir or wake briefly between sleep cycles, which last about 90 minutes. If the conditions that were present when your child fell asleep are no longer present when they stir or wake, they will likely wake up and seek your help. Likewise, if the conditions present when they fall asleep are the same when they wake during the night, they will be more likely to fall back to sleep independently and without difficulty. Each child is different with regard to how sensitive they are to changed conditions. For some sleeping with a pacifier is problematic because if the paci falls out, they will cry until someone retrieves it. For others, a parent’s absence triggers a search or signals (cries or calls) for the parent’s return. By being mindful to match bedtime conditions to those which will be present throughout the night, you can drastically improve your child’s ability to sleep through the night with good independence.
You may find that by implementing the above recommendations, you feel better than you thought you might. Oftentimes we don’t realize just how sleep deprived we are! Here’s hoping that with a few small changes your family will be on its way to better mood and better health.