Sleep problems: Recent research and tips for a better night's sleep

Written by Elizabeth Quon, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist. Halifax, Canada.

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My colleagues and I recently published a study on sleep and mental health in children and adolescents in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  You can read the original article here. As a clinical psychologist, sleep researcher, and sleep-deprived parent, I hope I can share a few take home messages from this study and a few tips to improve your child’s sleep.

When I speak with other parents of babies and young children, we often discuss the struggles of getting our children to sleep through the night, have good naps, and wake up at a humane time in the morning. I don’t need to tell other parents that sleep affects your child’s mood and appetite, not to mention your own sleep (and mood, patience, and caffeine intake!).  However, parents may not know that sleep is also important for immune function, brain development, learning, and mental health.

What we learned from our research.

In our study, we surveyed children and teens with mental health concerns who were being seen at mental health clinics. We found that 88% of children and 97% of adolescents in our sample had a sleep disturbance in at least one area (e.g., falling asleep, waking up at night, daytime sleepiness). More adolescents had sleep difficulties compared to children, and adolescents tended to have more severe sleep problems than children. However, many adolescents with sleep problems did not feel that sleep was in fact a problem for them, suggesting that sleep problems may be perceived as typical in young people.

We know from previous research that there is a strong link between sleep and mental health, and some recent studies suggest that sleep problems may contribute to the development of anxiety and depression.  In our study, we wanted to see if sleep problems improved by treating mental health issues. We found that certain group-based mental health interventions were associated with improvements in sleep. The results suggested that perhaps some of the skills taught in these groups, like relaxation strategies and emotion regulation skills, may help to improve sleep.

4 Important Tips for a Restful Night.

One of the big struggles for parents, children, and teens is getting enough sleep. How much sleep should you and your children get each night? Current recommendations can be found here.

Here are a few tips to help you and your children get enough restful sleep each night. Applying these strategies depends on your child’s individual needs and age.

  1. Set a relaxing bedtime routine. The hour before bedtime should be calming; this is the time to wind down from the stress and busyness of the day. Aim for some quiet activities, such as reading, doing puzzles, drawing, or listening to music. A consistent bedtime routine signals to your child’s brain that sleep is coming soon, and is an important part of healthy sleep habits.

  2. Consistent sleep and wake times each day. Consistency helps to regulate your child’s sleep patterns, so their brain knows when it’s time to sleep and wake each day. Getting your child to sleep at the same time each day may mean limiting evening activities (e.g., swimming lessons, soccer). Many children stay up later on weekends, but going to bed more than an hour later on Saturday may make Sunday night bedtime(and Monday morning wake up) extra difficult! If your child does stay up late one night, limit the amount they sleep in the next morning. In some situations, waking up earlier consistently may be the key to improving sleep.

  3. Beds are for sleeping only. Try to limit playtime or other activities in bed. It is important for your child to have strong associations between bed and sleep. This also means limiting the amount of time your child spends awake in bed. Some children need time to wind down in bed before they can fall asleep, but other children may find wakeful time in bed to be frustrating. If your child doesn’t seem sleepy when they go to bed and they take a long time to fall asleep, you may want to consider moving their bedtimes a bit later, limiting how late they sleep in the morning, or reducing naps during the day.

  4. Reduce screen time, especially in the evening. The bright lights and stimulation from tablets and videogames can make your child’s brain more awake and may shift their sleep time later. Limit screen time throughout the day and in the evening. Passive screen time (e.g., watching TV) is less stimulating than interactive screen time (e.g., videogames, texting), so if you cannot avoid screen time in the evening, choose a quiet programme for your child to watch.

Talk to your doctor or mental health care provider if you have serious concerns about your child’s sleep.