Help your children sleep
The end of the summer marks the start of a new school year for children across the United Kingdom. Schools in Scotland and Wales have already started their new academic year, and within a few short days, students across England will be joining their peers in a return to the classroom. For many children this will be the first time that they have stepped foot in a school in six months, and whilst the threat of COVID-19 still remains, many professionals have concurred that a return to normal educational routines is necessary to help support both the economy and the mental wellbeing of our youngest generation.
The start of any new school year can be a little fraught, even without the backdrop of a global pandemic. Change can be difficult to handle for many and with so many routines having been upended during 2020, it is not impossible to imagine that there may be some teething issues with settling into a new normal. One such issue to be aware of is sleep anxiety and sleep disturbance amongst the young.
Falling asleep might seem like the easiest thing in the world and nothing to worry about. For some children, the idea of going to sleep is fraught with stress and anxiety. It’s often a vicious cycle:
Your tween or teen may have trouble sleeping due to stress, a health issue, or nightmares, and then becomes anxious about bedtime, which then makes bedtime a source of dread. Regardless of the cause, the outcome of sleep anxiety in children is sleep deprivation, and that’s a serious issue that you can’t overlook.
Doctors say that sleep anxiety is actually a form of performance anxiety, more commonly known as stage fright. In short, when your child is anxious about going to bed, it’s very likely that they are nervous about being able to fall asleep, stay asleep, or what may happen while they are asleep. It’s common for teens to have occasional nightmares, for example, but when nightmares become more frequent, not only is it a sign that your child is dealing with stress or anxiety, but it’s also likely that he or she will resist sleep because they want to avoid the nightmares.
It’s even more common for sleep anxiety to stem from a sleep disorder. Basically, if your child spends more time tossing and turning than catching Z’s during the night, they are likely to have anxiety about the sleep they are losing and being tired the next day, which only exacerbates the problem. Over time, this lost sleep snowballs, leading to some serious consequences.
In the short term, sleep deprivation can contribute to irritability, moodiness, trouble focusing, and issues with academic performance. However, research indicates that sleep deprivation during the teen years can actually have serious long-term health effects.
Mental health issues. Research indicates that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of depression, and teens who have regular bedtimes and get adequate amounts of sleep are less likely to be depressed or have suicidal thoughts. Substance abuse. Not only does sleep deprivation increase the risk of teens using and becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol, but those substances can also disrupt sleep. Sleep deprivation can also increase dependence on sleep and anxiety medications. Obesity. Poor sleep quality is closely linked to several health problems, chief among them an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. The increased risk follows them into adulthood.
The bottom line is that if your older child is showing signs of sleep deprivation, it’s important to act to get to the bottom of the issue, and help them get better sleep.
How to help your child with sleep problems
When your teen or tween isn’t sleeping, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor to rule out any health concerns that could be disrupting sleep or contributing to sleep anxiety. Issues like sleep apnea, Restless Leg Syndrome, or acid reflux can disrupt sleep, and treating them can provide relief to sleep issues. It’s also important to remain alert to your child’s mental health, and watch for signs of stress, anxiety, or depression that require intervention.
Assuming there aren’t any underlying health conditions, sleep problems can often be alleviated by making lifestyle changes. Some of the things you can do include:
Ensuring your child eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy green vegetables that contain plenty of vitamin B and folate, which can help alleviate anxiety. Limit their intake of caffeine as well, especially later in the day.Encouraging exercise. Even taking a 15-30 minute walk after dinner can help support sleep. Yoga is another option that’s been proven to help improve sleep and reduce anxiety. Creating an environment conducive to sleep. Good sleep hygiene is vital to healthy sleep, and this includes making the room dark (use room darkening curtains or eye masks if necessary), cool, and quiet. Evaluate your teen’s mattress as well. An old or uncomfortable mattress isn’t going to give your teen a good night’s sleep, and can cause pain or other problems. If your child is using an old mattress (10 years or older) or that’s too small for their growing body, it’s time to invest in a new one. Set limits for electronic devices. Blue light from devices disrupts sleep. Set rules regarding when devices can be used, and insist that they are turned off an hour before bedtime.Reserve the bed for sleeping only. Don’t let your child read in bed, or do homework or other activities on their bed. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy. Overcoming sleep anxiety may require therapy, Cognitive behavioral therapy will help your teen better understand why they are struggling to sleep and give them more tools to overcome the challenges. Medication. Finally, in some cases, sleep medications may be necessary to help your teen sleep.
Keep in mind that teens naturally experience changes in their Circadian rhythms, meaning that they naturally fall asleep later than older or younger people. Teen brains produce melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, later at night, which can disrupt sleep. Supplementing melatonin can help them fall asleep earlier.
When your tween or teen is having trouble sleeping, it’s natural to be concerned. Stay alert to the signs of sleep anxiety, and if anything seems amiss, take steps to solve the problem right away to prevent long-term consequences.
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