The expression ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’ is a good place to start this week’s blog in-line with National Bed Month.

We begin our journey into parenthood feeling the full force of sleep deprivation and then, as our babies become toddlers, we battle through the loss of day time naps.  Just when we think we are finally through all the sleep phases, adolescence comes along, our children become teenagers and don’t want to leave their beds at all!

It’s not the best start to the day when we wake up feeling as if we haven’t slept well and we’re grumpy before we’ve even had breakfast. Have you noticed how this can be doubly true for our teenagers?

There is a general acceptance that mornings are not their best time but they are not alone – and it’s not actually their fault (or yours, if you aren’t naturally a morning person) – there is science at play here, well actually NEUROSCIENCE.

Matthew Walker in his book “Why We Sleep” explains that, although we all have a 24-hour circadian rhythm in common, our individual sleep/wake pattern has a genetic preference – we are either an “early lark” or a “night owl.”

This means that you either prefer to go to bed early and rise early or go to bed late and have a lay-in. This would have been helpful for our ancestor’s survival back in our more tribal days – half the tribe would remain awake whilst the other slept – ensuring that the camp was vulnerable for the shortest amount of time possible.

Not so great in our modern world however, if your preference is the latter but you still have to get up at 7am for school in the morning!

Understanding The Science Behind Sleep Management

Although our predisposition may provide us with a sleep preference, there are a number of other factors which influence our sleep:

  • Melatonin – a hormone whose job it is to remind our bodies that it is night-time and we should be considering sleeping. The release of melatonin increases throughout the day and decreases before dawn before building again for the next cue for bed time.
  • Adenosine – this chemical increases while we are awake and creates a sleep pressure – the longer we are awake the greater our desire to sleep (the peak of this is around 12 to 16 hours of being awake).

It sounds good so far – our brains have a trigger that help us manage sleep, telling us it’s time to sleep and a chemical that makes us want to sleep. So why is it that we aren’t all having the sleep that we need and waking up feeling refreshed and ready for our day?

It worked for the caveman, but we have so many more choices, pressures and distractions in a modern day world compared to them. And these effect our mood, productivity, mental and physical well-being – and quality of sleep!

School stress, social pressures and other stressors in teenager’s lives can sometimes contribute to them feeling lethargic and developing poor sleep habits, which may then see them labelled as ‘lazy!’

However, as they move into adolescence their sleep triggers change and their natural desire to sleep moves later in the night. To function at their best though, they need 8 to 10 hours sleep. These two factors combined mean that getting up for school at 7 am (or for some even earlier) is not going to give them the best start to the day as they are unlikely to have had the sleep they need.

There is more to this though… you see, when we sleep we process the negative and challenging parts of our day:

  • An argument with a friend
  • Finding a test difficult
  • Learning new skills

and we do this during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) part of our sleep – when we dream.

Have you noticed that you can wake up not even thinking about the problem that was bothering you the day before or, at least, not feeling so upset about it and able to come up with some new solutions? There is scientific benefit in following the advice “to sleep on it”.

We sleep in cycling blocks of Non-REM and REM sleep – as the night goes on, we get progressively more REM sleep.  If we then wake too early (before the largest part of our REM cycle) we miss out on a large percentage of this important part of our sleep.

Our brain can’t do the de-stressing job that it is tasked with!

If we are regularly deprived of this sleep, we are likely to find ourselves more anxious and more stressed and this in turn generates more stress in our day. You can see the cycle that begins, as we add more stress to our stress bucket but are not able to get the sleep we need to process that stress.

How to Help Children Manage Sleep

What can we do to support our children to get enough sleep?

  • Create a regular sleep routine – aim to go to bed and get up at the same time every day – working with and not against our sleep triggers.
  • Avoid caffeine – especially in the afternoon. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors and delays the sleepy signal from getting through, hindering the brain’s natural sleep management process. This can affect the quality of our sleep but also the delayed adenosine can then send us the sleepy signal just when we are wanting to start are day and fuels our “need” for caffeine to get us going for the day.  Remember caffeine isn’t only in coffee and tea but is also in cola, energy drinks, cocoa, chocolate and energy bars.
  • Limit screen time before bed – aim to have an hour’s screen free time. Instead try create ‘wind down time’ by
    • Reading a book
    • Having a bath
    • Listening to relaxing music
    • Listening to an audiobook
    • If you aren’t able to decrease screen time consider adding a blue light filter to your screen.
  • Create a dark room with black out blinds, discourage night lights where possible. Melatonin builds up more when the night draws in so the darker the better to encourage sleepiness!
  • Ensure the room isn’t too hot – a temperature of around 18oC is recommended for most people.
  • Consider sensory needs – putting a soft blanket on top of the mattress or increasing the weight of blankets may aid sleep for some children.

Additional Tips for Sleep Management

If your child is finding it difficult to get to sleep you may also consider

  • Increasing activity during the day.
  • Introducing some bright light therapy, shortly after waking, which can help to reset the body clock.
  • Shifting the bedtime routine by moving bedtime gradually forward (to increase the opportunity to sleep longer).
  • There are also a number of relaxation and sleep apps available that may help.

As we move through mock exams and into exam season, school stress is likely to be at an all time high. It may help to share some of these facts with your teenagers too and to remind them that studying until the early hours will not increase the amount of information they can recall. Sleep has been proven to improve memory recall and reduce mental fatigue. They are more likely to recall the facts that they read before a good night’s sleep than the ones they try to cram at a cost to their sleep.

If you or your child are struggling with sleep, anxiety or related concerns you may wish to contact your GP or a trained therapist to discuss any concerns and signpost any appropriate help.

The following website may also be of interest:

The Sleep Charity 

Schedule A Consultation with The Youth Fairy for Sleep Management

If your child is struggling with sleep, we can help. At The Youth Fairy, we can help your child manage sleep the right way. Get in touch with your nearest Youth Fairy today!