Why is it that with modern day living we often lose sight of the basics? Sleep is one of the essentials of human health, we all need a good night’s sleep – whether we are aged 5 or 85.
Sleep heals and restores energy, it regulates hormones and assists with growth. When we sleep, the brain certainly doesn’t. It is busy ‘spring cleaning’, ensuring that all bodily systems are regulated and maintained to an optimal level. Sleep is a tonic for the soul – it creates emotional stability, mental clarity and helps us to cope with the demands of daily living. It ensures that when your child throws a tantrum, you don’t!
Chronic (long-term) sleep deprivation is a slow and cruel type of torture. Parents are the caretakers of a child’s sleep. Each week, thousands of children are sent to school sleep deprived, never to reach their full learning potential. Any teacher will tell you that a sleep-deprived child finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods and struggles to absorb and retain information. Sleep deprivation is one of the main challenges facing modern education today. For many families, feeling tired, stressed and irritable has become the norm.
So how can we ensure that we all get a good night’s sleep? Following a good routine and creating an optimal environment for sleep is crucial. This is called sleep hygiene: it refers to the habits, environmental factors and practises that influence the quality of your sleep.
protect your sleep time
This is the best place to start. Your daily activities should be organised around your sleep time. Don’t allow other activities to eat into your sleep. Adults need 7–8 hours’ sleep and teenagers 8.5–9.5 hours. Children of school age (up to an age of 10) need a minimum of 10 hours’ sleep and it is the responsibility of the parent to ensure these 10+ hours are protected. Watch the clock! There are times in a child’s development when they may be going through a growth spurt or using more energy. Starting school, exams or puberty are all times where it is a good idea to consider if an extra half hour’s sleep is needed.
have a routine
Your brain loves routines. When you get into your pyjamas and brush your teeth, your brain recognises this sequence of events and it signals to the nervous system that it’s time to switch to ‘rest and refresh’ mode. Getting up and going to bed at the same time each day is best. Varying bedtimes are particularly hard on children.
Established sleep hygiene is very helpful when you go on holiday or are in an unfamiliar environment. Going through the child’s night-time routine (bath, cuddles, story etc) will help your child’s body recognise it is time to sleep. Taking a special toy or blanket from home can also be a great help in providing comfort.
have a wind down time
At the end of the day, we need to wind down to relax our body and create a peaceful state of mind. Ideally, we should start to wind down one hour before bed, but half an hour may be more realistic for a busy family. The only time our stress hormone cortisol will drop is while we’re sleeping. Embrace the wind-down routine, it can be a special time to reconnect with yourself and your family. Turn off your mobile phone and the TV, put on some dim lighting, and talk to your children about their day (encourage them to talk about any worries they may have – talking about any worries makes them less likely to take them to bed), read a few books together or enjoy a cuddle under the covers.
eat well, sleep well
Eating a balanced meal with plenty of vegetables and a combination of protein, fat and slow-release carbohydrates will set you up well for the night ahead. Foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan are good choices as it helps produce the melatonin that regulates our sleep patterns. Foods high in tryptophan are bananas, eggs, red meat, fish, seafood, dates, nuts, seeds and dairy products.
After 2pm, it’s a good idea for parents to avoid caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a stimulant and has a half-life of 5–6 hours, which means that if you have a coffee or tea at 7pm, half the caffeine will still be in your system at midnight.
Exercise increases our levels of serotonin which is later converted to our sleep hormone melatonin. (Don’t exercise too close to bedtime though as this can be disruptive to sleep and does not allow the body sufficient time to wind down.)
Try and be as physically active in as many ways as possible each day. Three lots of 10 minutes is as beneficial as 30 consecutive minutes (note, children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day). You don’t have to be sweating to be active. Walk to the mailbox or to school together, mow the lawns, let your children climb trees, turn the music on and dance, roll down hills or stomp like dinosaurs around the lounge!
reduce screen time
Don’t use any electronic devices one hour before going to bed. The unnatural light from a television confuses our body clock and exposure to artificial light from computers, iPads and mobile phones suppresses the release of our sleep hormone, melatonin.
chronic sleep deprivation
Be assured that it is perfectly normal to have several days or even weeks where you don’t sleep as well. What isn’t normal is having months or years of poor sleep. Long-term sleep deprivation accumulates and increases your risk of chronic disease and a premature death. Many sleep disorders exist and they are complex in nature. The good news is there are many health professionals who now specialise in sleep, so seek help where necessary.
Regardless of the sleep problem, having good sleep hygiene is always the first line of attack. Once you enjoy the benefits of a good sleep routine, you won’t want to be overdrawn at the sleep bank again.
Sarah Sidey is a mother to three young children and is a health professional with a passion for writing and health promotion