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Mind/Body Connection, Part 1: Sleep

This post is the first in a series on the connection between physical health and mental wellness. Look for future posts on this connection in the coming months!

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines on how much sleep children and teens need. Sleep is a requirement, one that ensures our minds and bodies are functioning properly. Lack of sleep can lead to behaviors that mimic mental health issues like anxiety and depression, or difficulty with impulse control, focus, and frustration management. Lack of sleep is also tied to physical problems like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. For parents who are concerned about their child’s focus, impulse control, depression, or anxiety, supporting a greater amount of sleep can make a large difference in their child’s life.

Life is increasingly designed to keep us and our children from getting the sleep we need. Homework is demanding and time-consuming, and in an effort to ensure an appropriate amount of exercise, many children participate in sports several times a week. Add family dinner, play time with friends, and other extracurricular activities like music lessons and clubs, and its easy to squeeze out time for sleep. Below are the National Institutes of Health Guidelines for how much sleep people need, by age:

Newborns: 16-18 hours

Preschool-aged Children: 11-12 hours

School-aged Children: At least 10 hours

Teens: 9-10 hours

Adults (including older adults): 7-8 hours

For children and teens who wake up at 6am for school, they should be falling asleep at 8pm at the latest. Likely, their bedtime routine should start around 7:30pm. If that sounds unattainable for your household, here are some strategies to try:

Prioritize activities. If your child (or children) are rushing from one activity to another, consider which activities you can drop.

Being rested allows a child’s brain to absorb information and learning better, so consider quality over quantity. Being a part of many activities can make a child appear well-rounded, but if his or her brain is not primed to get the most out of it, the activity or lesson may not be the best use of time.

If you have several children involved in activities that prevent an early bedtime for both or one of them, consider finding help. Perhaps a neighbor can help with childcare or the bedtime routine while the other finishes. Many local colleges can also recommend students who are interested and available for affordable, part-time childcare. An extra set of hands might help make an earlier bedtime more realistic for your family.

If your family has achieved a balanced schedule but your child struggles to fall and stay asleep, maintaining what’s known as “sleep hygiene” can help. The CDC defines sleep hygiene as “the promotion of regular sleep.” Some often-stated tips include:

For children, have a set bedtime and a bedtime routine. Don’t use the child’s bedroom for timeouts or punishment.

  • Go to bed at the same time each night, and rise at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.

  • Follow a bedtime routine that is calming, such as taking a warm bath or reading.

  • Sleep in a quiet, dark, and relaxing environment, which is neither too hot nor too cold.

  • Limit foods and drinks that contain caffeine. These include some sodas and other drinks, like ice tea. Chocolate also has caffeine.

  • Don’t exercise just before going to bed. Do exercise earlier in the day — it helps a person sleep better.

  • Spend time outside every day (when possible) and be physically active.

  • Help your child use the bed just for sleeping — not doing homework, reading, playing games, or talking on the phone. That way, he or she will associate the bed with sleep.

  • Don’t watch scary TV shows or movies close to bedtime because these can sometimes make it hard to fall asleep.

In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends all screens be turned off at least 30 minutes before bedtime and suggests keeping televisions, computers, smartphones and other screens out of kids’ bedrooms. This recommendation can sound unrealistic to parents, so one strategy is working with your child or teen to generate a solution that works for both parties. Be open to your child’s suggestions, as long as they accomplish the goal of turning screens off 30 minutes before bed time. Instead, use the 30 minutes to build a calming and relaxing routine that works for both of you.

If these strategies are not effective and you are concerned that your child sleeps too little or too much, consult your pediatrician.

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