Back To School With Dr. Kat
Sleep. We all need it, but young children and teens typically need more shut-eye than adults to feel and perform their best. As the new school year approaches, we ask author and sleep scientist, Dr Kat Lederle, for advice on how we can help our young learners adopt a winning routine.
“A poor night’s sleep now and then is normal. We all experience it and it doesn’t mean you have a sleep problem, just that you’re human. You can catch up with lost sleep by going to bed a bit earlier over the next few days or week. That said, even one bad night can leave you feeling tired and cranky the next day. This can impact on cognitive functioning by impairing your ability to learn, think, reason, remember, problem solve and make decisions. All the daily things learners need to do.
While missing out on a few Zzzs is rarely a big concern, sleep disturbance can be the result of real or hypothetical worries and good or bad life events. Excitement and anxiety both arouse the system and can negatively impact sleep quality. Yet while the excitement of returning to school may override any anxiety in some children, for others, it may be the anxiety of returning to school that's keeping them awake. This anxiety might be caused by the prospect of going to a new school or making friends or fear of failure after a year of Covid disruption.
Whatever’s at the heart of the issue, normalising sleep problems is important. Not least because worrying about not sleeping can create further anxiety, which in turn can activate the body’s fight/flight response. This primal response to danger triggers the release of hormones that prepare us to stay and fight or run and flee. Once we’re in this state, the last thing our body will let us do is sleep. It needs us to stay alert and awake!”.
Sleep and your body clock
“If lack of sleep is a recurring problem with your child or teenager, it’s time to set aside some time to find out why. As a parent, carer or guardian, it’s natural to feel anxious about their health and wellbeing but try not to exacerbate the problem by inflicting your own anxieties and worries onto them. Many things can be resolved with a good chat, or by speaking to a GP or sleep specialist. Organisations such as youngminds.org also offer support and tips on tackling the issues that could be affecting their quality of life.
It’s also worth remembering that what you may perceive as a sleep problem may simply be the result of differences in your child’s natural circadian rhythms. That’s the internal circadian clock that tells your body when it’s time to get up and go to sleep. Young children generally have an earlier clock, meaning they go to sleep early and wake up early. This fits in with conventional school teaching hours. Adolescents typically have a later sleep-wake time. This can make waking up early for school challenging, and result in a moody, grumpy teenager that’s sleep deprived and struggling at school.
While it’s not especially easy or desirable to change your circadian clock – the internal timekeeping system that tells you when to wake and sleep - sometimes you have no choice. For those going back to school or college, establishing a new sleep routine a week or two in the run up to the start is the best way to help make the transition easier. It will also help them start the year off on the right foot.”
Create a winning sleep schedule
Develop an evening routine
Help your child develop an evening ritual they enjoy and can own. Typically for younger children this might involve putting on their favourite PJs, brushing their face and teeth, reading a story, then turning off or dimming the lights. While you should never force sleep, a routine helps to regulate the circadian rhythms by sending little timed cues.
For tips on helping babies sleep, read our tips and tricks to get babies snoozing.
Wake up at the same time
It’s the circadian clock in your brain that sets the rhythm for waking and sleeping. This circadian clock is influenced by environmental cues, especially light. Try and wake at the same time each day to the morning light. Exposure to light on a morning walk will also help the circadian rhythm to adapt.
Get just enough exercise
Proper exercise is important for sleep quality but just as important is downtime, light exposure, regular mealtimes, moments of stillness and generally slowing things down before bed. As with all things related to the circadian rhythm, timing is important so avoid eating and exercise 2-3 hours before bed.
Create a cosy bedroom
Having a calm space in which to sleep will promote better sleep. Keep the bedroom tech- and clutter-free, and at the best temperature for sleeping, with comfortable bedding and soft lights. Higher light levels can suppress melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep.
Be mindful of stimulants
Factors such as caffeine - especially popular with older children when studying - technology and noise can all negatively impact sleep. While some research suggests that adolescents use phones less for entertainment in the evening than as a distraction to suppress anxiety and worry, exposure to light can further delay the body clock.
Can’t sleep? 3 things to remember:
- Poor sleep is normal. Everyone experiences it – it's part of being human, so don’t sweat about a few lost hours. If the sleep problem is recurring, speak to a GP or sleep specialist for expert advice.
- Forcing children to sleep is likely to backfire. Make sleep more about choice. ‘What book would you like to read?’ ‘What pillow
do you prefer?’ When people feel empowered, they’re more likely to feel in control, safe and relaxed.
- Focus on the now. If your child is worried about coping with school on so little sleep, tell them you can talk about that together in the morning. Tomorrow’s another day - right now they just need to relax!
You can read more from Dr Kat in her article Managing New Routines.