“I had to go to sleep earlier. That was it. I’d spent my entire life pushing the limits of each day, sacrificing tomorrow because I didn’t want to miss out on today.”
(Jay Shetty - Think Like a Monk)
Sleep. We all know how important it is. As a child we hate it and as an adult we want more of it. Physically it helps to maintain a good body temperature, conserve energy, maintain weight and look after our immune system. Mentally it can be the difference between a bad day and a good day enabling us to cope better, helping us to make better choices, respond rather than react, build resilience, and empower positive thinking.
Despite all of this “A 2013 study of Britain’s bedtime habits found that a whopping seventy per cent of people sleep for seven hours or less, with a third of the population getting by on only five to six hours,” (10 Keys to Happier Living by Vanessa King) Getting quality sleep depends a lot on the phase of life we are in and what we have going on for us and these days that tends to be quite a lot!
Sleep enables us to do things more effectively, efficiently and with more enjoyment but whether it’s being a child who doesn't want to miss out, a teen going through puberty, a student partying all night, a new parent who can't sleep or an adult working well into their evening, we are finding more and more reasons for not going to bed at a reasonable hour and for a worthy length of time, we are just too busy!
Sleep for parents of a newborn (let's be honest there are no set rules for newborns, it has to be whatever works, so let's focus on the parents)
Babies 4 to 12 months old require 12 to 16 hours including naps
Adults 18–60 years require 7 or more hours
If you have a newborn we can be sure that you are getting little to no sleep. This can play havoc with your mind. Seriously. It is torture. Stringing a sentence together is hard enough let alone keeping a human alive.
Sleep in this period of your life has to happen whenever you can find the time.
Sleep when they sleep. We know that sleeping in the day can upset your sleeping patterns but, for now, it will do. Don’t stress yourself about getting out to baby groups, cleaning or watching that last episode of Succession (okay maybe this one is worth staying awake for!) Just stay at home and get tucked up in your bed for half an hour, you will be so thankful you did when you wake up feeling human again.
Get a lamp with a dimmer. Place it next to your bed so that you don’t have to get up to turn on a full blown light every time you wake up to feed, change or calm your baby. This will mean that you and baby have a better chance of getting back off to sleep in between feeds as “darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin while light causes that production to stop” (https://www.sleepfoundation.org/melatonin)
Herbal Tea. If you feel you need to get up in the night then get up and make some herbal tea. Pukka Night Time tea is great, it will quench your thirst and relax you ready to get back off to sleep.
Listen to some relaxing music. Night time feeds can be so lonely. It isn’t a good idea to reach for your phone as the blue light can make it hard to fall back off to sleep so listen to some relaxing music.
Get a cot attached to your bed. Reaching over for your baby rather than standing up and signalling a full on wake up means that you can get back off to sleep more easily once done with your feeds.
Sleep for toddlers
Toddlers 1 to 2 years require 11 to 14 hours including naps
Children 3 to 5 years require 10 to 13 hours including naps
“infants' melatonin levels become regular in about the third month after birth, with the highest levels measured between midnight and 8:00am" (https://en.wikipedia.org)
So post newborn/first year, sleep does improve. However it is likely that you are still required at bedtime. Kids bedtimes can be really frustrating when it begins to eat into your very limited but sought after adult time!
Get a routine in place and have plenty of cues. For example - bath, warm milk, story and bed. Whatever it is, just ensure it's the same every night. Having a bedtime routine helps to programme the brain and internal body clock enabling children to wind down at the same regular time each night.
Avoid screen time a couple of hours before bedtime. The blue screen will keep your child awake and stimulated for longer, making it hard for them to unwind and fall asleep. Part of the preparation for sleep is the release of the hormone melatonin which is produced by the pineal gland and is encouraged by darkness.
Offer kids Headspace or relaxing music. In their room or on headphones, this makes them feel less alone and can help them to relax.
Try to accept the situation. The battle of trying to make the whole process quicker can sometimes be the reason it feels so frustrating and long! Find something you can do in their bedroom whilst you sit there. Maybe some mindfulness for yourself, writing or reading so you give in and stop trying to wish the whole process done.
Encourage your child to get themselves off to sleep. Become less involved, read a book or doing some mindfulness for yourself. This way you become less available but still there to comfort them. Eventually, when they are ready they will get themselves off to sleep and you will look back on this time with fondness.
Sleep for young children
Children aged 6-12 years require 9-12 hours of sleep
By the time your child is 5 they are probably getting themselves off to sleep but that doesn’t necessarily mean bedtime is straightforward. My 8 year old likes to get out of bed with the classic “I can’t sleep” several times an evening.
Ensure there is a routine. It will probably look quite different to the toddler routine. For example a story, independent reading in bed and then mindfulness on headphones until they fall asleep.
Don't rely on the routine lasting forever. Children are constantly changing and providing new challenges, just when you think you have it down, it all changes. If something is no longer working then don’t be afraid to change it, reflection and willingness to try new things is key.
Stop them having water close to bedtime. Waking to go to the toilet in the night disturbs their deep sleep (REM) which may mean they wake up feeling unrested.
Avoid screens in the hour or two leading up to bedtime. It signals to the brain that it is time to wake up. Darkness encourages the release of melatonin, the sleepy hormone.
Sleep for teenagers
13-18 years require 8-10 hours
Teenagers have a lot going on, changing bodies, busy schedules, active social lives and of course, sleep is so uncool. These are all causes of a lack of sleep in these turbulent years. Sleep is extremely important in our teenage years as it is when our brain memorises and practices the skills learned in the day. With teenagers taking exams and learning so many new skills at school it is important for their brains to consolidate all of this learning and be fresh and ready to learn the next day.
There is also a shift in the timing of their circadian rhythm and the release of melatonin (that hormone that makes us sleepy) isn't released until much later in the evening. This means they may not be tired until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, probably after us! Adding to this, their sleep isn't as deep so they have less of what we call REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, this is the deep sleep that we dream in. This results in young people who want to sleep in when they have an early start to make it to school on time! You may find you have a grumpy teen a lot of the time as they are rarely reaching their 8-10 hours required.
Ask for screens to be turned off at least 1 hour before bed. They signal to the brain that it’s awake time, add this to their delayed release of melatonin, if they are not turning off their screens until they are tired at 10pm it is going to delay their sleep even further!
Warm Milk. “Milk's sleep-promoting properties might be due to the amino acid tryptophan7. Tryptophan-enriched foods have been shown to improve sleep and mood.” (https://www.sleepfoundation.org)
Swap active exercise such as dancing or football for some gentle yoga or mindfulness. This will help their bodies and minds to unwind and relax.
Factor in some time to talk. A chance for them to get anything off their chest before going to sleep. “In the 2013 British Bedtime Study, around fifty per cent of people said that stress and worry kept them awake at night” Stress triggers insomnia and young people tend to feel a lot of stress with pressure from social media, school, families and puberty itself! Try to talk about something positive before going to sleep at night. Maybe a success from the day or something they enjoyed (if they are willing to talk to you that is!)
Offer them a notepad/diary and pen. To put next to their bed so that they can write any worries down prior to going to sleep.
A shower/bath before bed. This can help to relax but ensure the temperature of the water is just right. “A growing body of research suggests that taking a hot shower or bath before bed can improve sleep. In the hours before bedtime, a human’s core body temperature naturally cools, while skin temperatures of the hands and feet increase. Scientists hypothesise that immersing the body in warm water aids this natural temperature regulation process, improving sleep as a result. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the “warm bath effect.”” (https://www.sleepfoundation.org)
Quit the bad sleep cycle. In terms of mental health bad sleep can drive us to make unhealthy choices. We are more likely to eat sugary foods and carbohydrates and exercise less when tired or exhausted. This can all have an effect on a teenager's mental health meaning they may be less likely to sleep well.
Good quality sleep is important but it's not always easy to achieve. Make it your priority, as part of your self care routine, like brushing your teeth. Good sleep hygiene can have a profound effect on your day to day life. If you are suffering with insomnia or need further support in getting to sleep then there are a few charities and organisations that may be able to help.