It’s that time of year again when many of us are faced with encouraging, cajoling, herding (and occasionally shouting at!) our children to get up and off to school on time for the new term, new class and new form teacher. This causes a fair degree of stress, and what follows are some simple tips that may help lessen the discomfort of that ‘back to school’ transition.
Firstly, there is a reason that – typically - our parents insisted on a set bedtime in the school term – it works! And I don’t mean that it works from a discipline and clarity standpoint, though that may be true for some. What a regular going to bed and getting up time is giving us – child or adult – is an opportunity to sleep in tune with our circadian rhythm, or body clocks. And there is a substantial win when it comes to getting consistent quality sleep.
Next, if your child associates a consistent set of positive, calming things with bedtime then that’s great help. A bath or shower, a bedtime story, listening to some calming music, reading to themselves (from paper, not a screen) etc. may all sound a bit old-fashioned. However, they are all ways to ‘quieten the mind’ and that’s the key to sleeping. If your children show any interest in meditation or mindfulness techniques (such as body scanning) these can help too.
As is widely known, a third factor in getting to sleep is the use of screens that emit blue lights quite close to our eyes – most screens in fact, with a few exceptions such as Kindles plus TV screens several meters away. So limiting their use – ideally 90 minutes before sleeping – will help. And if that seems too much, start with 15 minutes and work up! Even with blue light filters, these devices can disrupt sleep.
Fourthly, for those who have teenagers, a large body of research supports what you will already know – that they typically want to go to bed later & get up later than you do! There appears to be a shift in the teen body clock that reverses again for most of them as they approach their twenties. Your best bet is to encourage certain behaviours – a routine (even if it’s a late one), regular habits to prepare for bed (mindfulness, camomile tea, and ditching the screens), and accepting that they will need to sleep later at the weekend.
And finally, exercise matters for us all, and especially for children. Ensuring they get enough time to burn off their energy, plus some exposure to sunlight, is also a great help to promote sleep. Even walking a couple of bus stops can make a difference, and the earlier in the day the better.
And here are a couple of tips for parents’ sleep – not necessarily what you want to hear, but which may prove helpful!
One is about alcohol consumption. The news you probably don’t want is that alcohol is in a class of drugs called sedatives, and it will help you let go of consciousness more easily, but not, repeat not, give you quality natural sleep. Alcohol also tends to fragment sleep and make it less restorative, in other words, you are lightly anesthetised rather than properly asleep. Alcohol is a powerful suppressor of REM – sometimes known as ‘dream’ - sleep, so we also deny ourselves that ‘restoration’ when we drink too much before bedtime. And the temptation is to have a glass or two once the children go to bed. If you think this is affecting the quality and quantity of your sleep then I suggest a couple of things:
- Avoid having your alcohol at least four hours before bed. And, if that’s too difficult,
- Try the myriad of low/non-alcoholic drinks available. From personal experience, many of the beers taste as good as their alcoholic peers. I love Guinness 0.0, Adnam’s Ghostship 0.5% and Clear Head 0.5%, which has the added benefit of 5% of profits going to the mental health charity Talk Club. Other brands are of course available, as are low/non-alcoholic spirits and wines.
The other is caffeine intake. Important though it is to most of us, caffeine interferes with adenosine, the chemical that gradually builds up sleep pressure during the day to help us sleep at night. In summary, the earlier you have your caffeine the better, as it gives your body more time to process. So, as a rule of thumb, cutting out caffeine after noon will often help your sleep.
Best wishes to everyone for the school year ahead, and sleep well!
Giles Watkins, Positive Sleep