One of the best things you can do to set the stage for a successful school year is to make sure both you and your kids get plenty of quality sleep. In this article, a mental health expert and adoptive dad gives you a head start by explaining how healthy sleep habits for the whole family start with you.
Happy families start with healthy sleep
Sleep is as vital to humans as proper nutrition and exercise. Sleep researchers recommend that adults get a minimum of 7 hours a night for optimal functioning. Children should be sleeping more depending on their age. As recent adoptive parents, my partner and I have been learning firsthand the importance of healthy sleep the whole family.
If you’re a parent of a young child, you know sleep can be broken up by nightmares, bouts of illness, hungry bellies, wet beds, soiled diapers, or a little one who wants a 3 am cuddle. A recent study from the UK found that new parents slept an average of 4.88 hours a night during the first year of their child’s life.
Quality sleep helps to repair and replenish our bodies, but about a third of Canadian adults sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night. Insufficient sleep impacts almost every area of health. It increases the chance of developing issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, irritability, Alzheimer’s disease, and injury. It also puts lives at risk: nearly 20% of fatal vehicle collisions directly involve driver fatigue.
Sleep can also be a protective factor in emotional wellbeing. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley examined the relationship between sleep abnormalities and emotions. The study revealed that rapid eye movement (REM), which happens after about 90 minutes of sleep, helps the brain process difficult emotional experiences. A solid rest helps the day’s experiences feel less intense and emotionally charged.
Setting the stage
Healthy sleep habits start with adults who practice what they preach and take steps to help kids make positive associations with sleep and relaxation. If you prioritize strategies that maximize quality sleep, you can help your whole family wake up well rested and ready to take on the day’s challenges and adventures.
Here are some evidence-based sleep strategies to try.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Limit caffeine to the morning and early afternoon.
- Have a consistent sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time every night (including weekends); quality sleep comes with routine.
- Set an alarm for bedtime and turn off any unnecessary lights as a reminder that it’s time to wind down.
- Keep televisions, cell phones, tablets, e-readers, and other devices that emit blue spectrum light out of the bedroom and limit their use during the two to three hours before bedtime. Blue spectrum light suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycle.
- If a family member needs a night light, opt for one with a red or amber light, which is less likely to interrupt sleep (although any type of light can delay the sleep process).
- Use blackout curtains to keep your bedroom cool (around 18 degrees C) and dark.
Getting to sleep
Consistent bedtime routines are not just for kids. They’re a way of telling our brains it’s time for rest. Make a habit of taking a warm shower, reading a book, engaging in prayer or quiet reflection, or writing a 5-minute to-do list for the next day.
Listen to a guided meditation or progressive relaxation recording to slow down your thoughts and tune in to your body’s cues for rest.
If you find yourself restless and cannot settle within 10-15 minutes, leave your bed and engage in a quiet activity. Return to bed only when you’re sleepy.
If you’ve been struggling with insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) for longer than a few weeks, check in with your physician or mental health care provider. There many physical and mental health issues that can contribute to or cause sleeping problems.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for insomnia is an effective intervention. CBT for insomnia involves working with a therapist or using a structured online program such as Sleepio, and includes tracking sleep patterns, shifting habits, and changing beliefs about sleep.
Tony is a mental health clinician and social worker from Vancouver, BC.