Many of the clients we see mention the problems they or their children have regarding sleep.

For some it is difficulties with getting ready for bed, others find they lie awake for long periods of time before they fall asleep and others describe that while getting to sleep isn’t a problem, they often find themselves waking during the night.

Depending on the situation some different strategies will be useful.

Research increasingly shows that good quality sleep is beneficial to our lives.  Sleep has a restorative purpose which is vitally important for good physical health, mental health and wellbeing, learning, and memory retention.  By comparison, some short-term impacts of poor or a lack of sleep can include:

  • Moodiness
  • Clumsiness
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty understanding new concepts
  • Increased appetite
  • Being unable to concentrate

Recent studies have shown that improving sleep hygiene, healthy habits that increase our chances of sleep, reduces the severity of a number of conditions, including ones we often see at AGSC such as ADHD, ASD, depression and anxiety.

Our brains are designed to thrive if they get sufficient sleep.  Sleep is not a time when our brains are doing nothing; they are actually very busy with tasks such as, creating and consolidating memories, making creative connections, processing complex information, clearing out toxins that build up during waking hours and storing information related to motor tasks. Think of a school bag – if everyday we keep adding things, books, notes, lunch wrappers, empty drink bottles, apple cores etc, how hard will it be to find the things we really need? Likewise, our brain gets filled up with all the things we experience and think about in the day, without the clean up, where learning is consolidated and our experiences organised, we will become much less efficient.

Sleep is as important for adults as it is for children. Families sometimes attribute the shorter amount of time their child sleeps to the fact the parents don’t sleep much. Rather than this being a good reason for children not sleeping very much, it indicates instead that the whole family may benefit from improving their sleep hygiene.

Part of our natural programming for sleep includes the production of Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone produced in the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is important in helping regulate our circadian rhythms, the internal body clock’s cycle of sleep and wakefulness. For the pineal gland to work optimally it requires light, preferably natural light, during the day, and darkness during the night. The natural light during the day triggers the pineal gland to rest and stop producing melatonin, and at night as it gets dark the pineal gland is triggered to start producing it again. If there is too much artificial light at night it won’t know to start producing the melatonin that is needed for preparing the body for sleep.  Increasingly, sleep problems are not a surprise considering the number of people who spend much of their day inside on their computers and who continue to work on them into the night. While some people may need to use Melatonin medication as prescribed by their medical practitioner, helping our bodies operate efficiently and produce its own is worthwhile.

In addition to improving our natural melatonin by having sufficient exposure to natural light during the day there are many other strategies that can assist with sleep.

How much sleep should we be getting

This is a common question.  Different sources vary slightly but generally…

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Simple tips to support healthy sleep habits

Things to avoid

  • Screen time for at least 1 hour before bed – including homework done on screens. The blue lights in these devices hinder the pineal gland from producing melatonin.
  • Working on your bed. Beds are for sleeping.
  • Screens in the bedroom, this includes TV, computer, tablets, phone. A useful strategy for families is to setup a family charging station where all phones and tablets live overnight.
  • Phones as alarms in the bedroom. If you need an alarm clock there are plenty of inexpensive ones that can be purchased from discount shops.
  • Eating big meals and consuming caffeine or stimulant based products just before bedtime.
  • If you wake in the middle of the night, avoid getting out of bed to watch TV or do other stimulating activities that will wake you up.

Things to do

Get plenty of exercise during the day, but avoid strenuous exercise at least 2 hours before bed.

Create a bedtime routine such as:

  • Make bedtime the same each night
  • Have a small snack or warm milk
  • Take a warm shower or bath, perhaps use lavender essential oils if they suit you and your child as lavender can aid relaxation
  • Read an actual book (not on an e-reader, tablet or phone) – care might need to be taken regarding the themes of the book
  • Listen to quiet music
  • Engage in meditation or mindfulness
  • Make sure the bedroom is cool, dark and quiet.

What to do if you have trouble falling asleep

Remember it is normal for it to take 20-30 minutes to fall asleep, so try to avoid getting stressed if sleep doesn’t come instantaneously.

  • Do a boring task:
    • Counting backwards, depending on the skills of the person, maybe by things a bit challenging like say by 7s or from a high number like 5,000.
    • Listing uninteresting things. For example, street names around your neighbourhood.

Sometimes falling asleep is difficult for those with busy brains.  There are so many important and less important thoughts running around that we can’t always quieten our brains down. This can be for a range of reasons generally related to worry.

  • Worrying about the future or ruminating on the past
  • Exploring interesting ideas and the worry that they will be forgotten.
  • Worrying about not being able to get to sleep. This can happen when you first go to bed, or when you wake up during the night.

The following strategies can be useful in these cases:

Image by John Hain of Pixabay.

  • Mindfulness may be able to help. For more information, please go to this website: Smiling minds.
  • A visualisation approach is to imagine a filing cabinet, and then imagine placing the ideas in a draw and shutting it. They will be there in the morning and can be explored then. Just as placing a pair of socks in the draw and shutting it won’t make them disappear.  I’ve used this visualisation with many children I’ve worked with and they have found it very useful.
  • Have a notepad beside the bed and jot down your thoughts to be looked at again in the morning, when the brain is refreshed, thus allowing more productive thinking.
  • Use some self talk such as “I will probably get more sleep than I think I will” or “I may not be asleep, but it is nice to just lie in bed and rest my body and not have any jobs to do, or demands from others”.

What to do if you wake in the middle of the night.

Many of the above strategies for getting to sleep can also be used here.  If however, sleep doesn’t come in about 20-30 minutes then you can get up and sit in a quiet comfortable place until you feel like you are dozing off and then get back into bed.  While in your comfortable place, do a boring task (e.g., counting, reading a book you don’t find interesting, writing the alphabet again and again). If sleep still evades you, repeat this.

If sleep difficulties persist

While all these strategies can be useful to try, there are also some medical conditions that result in sleep problems, and if sleep difficulties persist it is advisable to speak with your medical practitioner so any underlying causes can be fully explored and managed.

If you would like to learn more about improving sleep hygiene contact us to book a consultation.

Useful resources  A great resource for teaching children the importance of sleep.   Raising awareness for sleep health  Smiling Minds App for mindfulness exercises.