By Dr. Smita Naidoo, MD, FRCPC, MPH (from LivePure Journal)
Thanks to pandemic life, we’re experiencing a steady increase of complaints around poor sleep quality and its effects on our kids, our teens, and ourselves. But good sleep is a skill, and it’s as teachable as washing our hands and cleaning our teeth.
As Canadians, we have risen to the challenge of COVID-19. And while our regular routines were upended, we’ve now learned to be resilient while homeschooling our children, maintaining social distancing, and navigating economic uncertainty.
Still, the absence of our routine and predictability has taken its toll, especially on a vital pillar of health: sleep.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I see how derailed many of us have become with the basics of sleep hygiene during the pandemic.
Recent data suggest “COVID-somnia” has increased since spring 2020—and not just in frontline workers.
Complaints of insomnia and hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) in adolescents and young adults have also increased.
The silver lining is that in most cases, good sleep is teachable. This is true whether you are training your child, training yourself, or both.
Unless you have a primary insomnia disorder or other chronic medical illness that impacts sleep quality, a lot of good sleep hygiene is in your control.
I like to use the acronym “RED” to remember good sleep practices.
It’s time for RED
R: Routine, routine, routine
If you can anchor your, or your child’s, wake-up and sleep times (and always stay within 90 minutes of those times, even on weekends and holidays), you are more than fifty percent of the way to improved sleep without medical intervention.
Routine also means that it is very important to stick to a consistent “wind-down time”—usually around 30 minutes.
The order in which you do things during this time is also important. For example, first brush your teeth, then shower, put on PJs, set your alarm, and turn on a diffuser. The nightly routine should be similar for your kids.
Doing this routine in sequence can actually train your brain that the next step is to sleep. It works the same for children and adolescents.
In addition, a child’s daily routine—even if they are not physically going to school—should stay the same.
That means eating breakfast, getting dressed and ready, and having a healthy snack available during breaks.
Keeping your bedroom at a comfortable temperature is harder these recent days with the indoor heat, poor air quality, and for some, a resurgence of moths!
However, hacks like keeping a bowl of essential oil-infused water by your bedside can help boost humidity and refresh the air in your bedroom.
With work and school being online for some, remember not to keep stressful work-related assignments and homework in your room.
Instead, create a work station for yourself outside the bedroom so that the bedroom becomes a room of calm, not clutter.
If you have a desk in your room, reserve it for relaxing activities like drawing, painting, and reading. Keep it inviting for the creative side of you that you want to continue to foster.
D: Distraction devices (aka digital devices)
Parents ask me every day: “What is normal tech use, and how do I get my teenager to stop bringing their phone to their bed?”
First of all, we have to admit to ourselves that these devices are an essential and major part of our lives.
Screen time is here to stay, but so is its negative impact on natural signals to fall asleep. Science tells us any screen time (even without blue light) can affect sleep quality.
The American Academy of Child Psychiatry recommends no screen time one to two hours before bedtime and that bedrooms be electronics free at bedtime.
That means no phones, tablets, computers, or watches linked to phones.
Putting devices “to sleep” in a common area parents can monitor (like the master bathroom) can help.
Parents are surprised when I mention that their own electronics also have to follow this rule for good role modelling.
This takes the power out of the child-parent relationship and instead creates a healthy value system in the home.
It becomes less about parents being right, and more about this being the right thing for all of us to do for better sleep.
Pre-pandemic, sleep was already a missed pillar of health. It is as teachable as dental hygiene and handwashing, yet we are always putting it at the lower end of our daily health priorities.
For youth in particular, sleep hygiene teaches the importance of routine, persistence, and a calm rhythm at the end of a stressful day.
During this pandemic, one thing that connects us all is that we do not have control of the outcome or what comes next. What we can do is nourish our health and mental well-being with sleep.
Dr. Smita Naidoo, MD, FRCPC, MPH, is a Doctor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Foundry Ridge Meadows. She has a private practice at Three Story Clinic, and is a clinical faculty member at UBC. Dr. Naidoo is co-founder of Paperclouds, Canada’s first educational child and youth platform dedicated to using sleep literacy as an entry point to better emotional, physical, and mental well-being. paperclouds.ca