This is such an unusual year as the return to school is not just after the usual summer break, but following the lockdown from early March. So this year has been entirely different than any other and the return to school- although mostly welcomed- brings a host of challenges for both for the adults as well as the children.
A recent survey suggested that as a result of lockdown/summer holidays almost 50% of children were now going to bed later and waking later too. This adjustment back into routine can be hard and ensuring that our children are getting enough sleep is also an important task too.
Adequate sleep is important for children to be receptive to learning; helping to develop increased concentration amounts and higher levels of motivation and lower levels of negative thought sequences. They will potentially process and retain information more quickly and be able to socialise and communicate with others better too. It is also found that sleeping better improves appetite regulation as well.
However, an over-riding theme this year is the increased fears, anxieties and stresses that children are experiencing that can have a knock on effect to their sleep; based on how they have processed covid-19, how the parents have responded during this time- the concerns of contracting the virus, some families have been sick and of course the loss of loved ones- both actual and possible- all contribute to the stress our children may experience.
Although we have shielded our children to the best of our ability the exposure to news cycles, overheard conversations -together with the sudden lack of social interaction and stimulation with young children wrenched from familiar settings to being house bound within a limited environment for a prolonged period all contribute to the anxiety that then has a knock on effect to sleep presenting as a form of separation anxiety.
Even as the restrictions have lifted, the concerns, limits and social changes have remained, leading to some children, among other reports, to being afraid to go to sleep, needing a parent to help them feel supported at bedtime specifically and reports of waking overnight for additional company and support.
I think the single most important element would be to ensure that we are openly talking with our children about the return to school and their concerns and stresses in the current climate. This must be done in a comforting and secure way; discussing with them the changes- as applicable and the expectations around the new protocols; Masks, visors, social distancing, hand hygiene and doing everything that we can to prepare and reassure them about the adjustments. That as we do this we, ourselves, are convinced and deliver the information in a reassuring manner, both in our verbal and non verbal communication.
Even in normal circumstances, for many parents, achieving and maintaining enough sleep, so that you do feel that your child is optimally rested; can be a challenge. Sleep resistance and refusal is a common challenge with children, so getting enough sleep can feel beyond reach, leaving you also tired and frustrated.
However, we can start to make some small changes then it is possible to grow your child’s sleep ability and allay those fears to enable them to have a confident sleep tendency.
The amount of sleep that your child requires becomes slightly more defined as they get older and they lose their nap-need and their entire quota for sleep is made up on overnight sleep. Of course many children will need more-some less, but I encourage families to “aim” somewhere in the recommended bandwidth so that you have something to work within and then judge yourself if by their mood, behaviour and eating patterns if they seem at their personal best.
Pre-school: 3-5 years-10-13 hours
School age 6-13 years- 9-11 hours
Teen 14-17 years-8-10 hours*Source: sleepfoundation.org
If your child is 3 or older and still has a preference to nap then don’t worry, although many of their peers will not nap, many still will and provided that nap does not interfere with bedtime or overnight sleep then continue as long as they show a nap requirement.
- Regular wake and bedtime help to re-enforce positive sleep practises. Attending school or pre-school often determines an early start time anyway and many children wake early themselves. To help promote a healthy sleep cycle then waking no later than 730am- 7 days a week can help regulate the bedtime and overnight sleep phase too. It may be necessary for those who are finding the adjustment really challenging to ensure the weekend is also early wake and early bed – until the rhythm is established and your child appears well rested each morning ….
- If the current wake and bedtime are significantly different -as soon as you can now- wake 15-30m earlier each morning and bring bedtime forward by the corresponding amount- there is no point doing an earlier bedtime unless the wake time is also adjusted creating enough “wake time” to encourage sleep with relative ease.
- Using bright and natural light to signal to the brain it is wake and start time is positive and ensuring that there is enough wake time to support going asleep well at bedtime. In turn using dim lights towards the start of bedtime can help to send the right message and promote the sleep hormone melatonin, together with the cocktail of hormones that help invite sleep with ease.
- How we spend our wake hours also has implications- reports of increased screen time during the last few months- now may need to be addressed and avoided especially 1-2 hours before bedtime. Too much screen time may impair the brains ability to go to sleep with ease and/ or it may decrease the level of deep and restoring sleep that is achieved too.
- Plenty of fresh air and outside activity- but be careful not to oversubscribe as children do need down-time too. Being on the go all day, every day can actually make it harder to relax come sleep time-a healthy blend of both is encouraged.
- Increased junk food has also been reported during the covid period- now eliminating high sugar, processed food as necessary and encouraging eating at regular intervals and at more or less the same time every day-also helps to regulate the biological time clock that underpins sleep responsiveness. School and pre-schools will have this in place so follow with this on the weekends and now promote a dinner time that happens at the same time every night and then you can also begin to establish a pre-sleep ritual that encourages falling asleep with greater ease.
- Establishing a bedtime routine in the room where your child sleeps -20-30 minutes before you would like them to start going to sleep may be considered the cornerstone to positive sleep practices. This time is best spent in a dimmed environment, in a space that you create in the bedroom, separate to the bed itself. This is a wonderful connecting opportunity to integrate into a busy household. Spend time reading, chatting, playing with your child as you prepare them for sleep. Once the lights go out, either with or without your input your child will start to go to sleep-it may be helpful to look at teaching them breathing and relaxing exercises that can help to quiet them further and allow peaceful and rested sleep to emerge.
- If your child is overly anxious, it is typically at bedtime that many fear are expressed- consider adding extra time to the bedtime routine to allow for this dialogue; encourage them to talk about the worries by day too- it may help to write the worries down and throw them away- offer positive solutions to concerns and just allowing them to feel heard and seen can be enough- journaling and mindful meditation can also help.
Of course, this can take some time to establish and some of you will benefit from applying my stay and support approach to further increase their sleep ability both at bedtime and overnight, but as we head into this season, we are presented with a perfect opportunity to effect change.
Lucy Wolfe is a Sleep Consultant, Author of the bestselling book The Baby Sleep Solution & All About The Baby Sleep Solution, creator of the award winning brand “Sleep Through”, a natural bed and body sleep spray and relaxing rub and mum of four. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie |087 2683584 or |firstname.lastname@example.org