If you’re a new parent, you hardly need to read the latest study to understand the ways sleep deprivation impacts your physical, cognitive, and mental health—you’re living it. But I’m sorry to tell you that for many, getting enough of the right kind of sleep continues even past the baby stage. Perhaps your preschooler is potty training and you need to get them up in the middle of the night to use the toilet. Perhaps your school-aged child has started getting nightmares and calls you to come comfort them. Or maybe you’re a mom like me, who started out co-sleeping and has been trying to stop it for years, with limited success.
So what is this kind of long-term exhaustion doing to us? Research in recent years have shown that an ongoing reduction in sleep can impede working memory, which is the ability to remember something for a short time so you can recall it elsewhere, like a shopping list or directions. Ongoing sleep disturbances can end up disrupting our circadian rhythm, which can negatively impact our immunity, making us more prone to viruses our children bring home, not to mention increasing our chances of getting Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or becoming depressed.
Clearly, sleep is crucial to good health. So what can you do about all the bathroom breaks, nightmares, and illnesses that interrupt and reduce sleep? I spoke with Whitney Roban, a clinical psychologist whose company, SLEEP-EEZ KIDZ, helps children, adolescents, and adults create good family sleep hygiene.
Roban says that good sleep is more than just the number of hours you get. “When a child knows that something is going to happen in the middle of the night,” she says, “their brains, while they’re falling asleep, are not relaxed. Their brains control their bodies, so when [it] not fully relaxed and they’re going to sleep, they don’t cycle straight through their sleep cycle. They don’t go into the deep sleep that they need, which is restorative, because their brain is still active,” anticipating that wake-up in the middle of the night. So, even though your child may be getting almost the right amount of sleep, minus those 10-15 minutes of getting up in the middle of the night to pee or to come join you in your bed after a nightmare, the quality of their sleep (and yours) is lowered because of the anticipation of that wake-up.
Like most sleep experts, Roban has strong feelings about dependable bedtime routines being integral in setting up your child for sleep success. Thankfully, this doesn’t need to be an involved, complex routine; simply reading a few books together in a quiet, relaxed environment is enough to set them up for that quality sleep they need. And yes, this routine includes a relatively consistent bedtime.
But what can a parent do if hockey games finish at 9pm every Wednesday night, or gymnastics classes for six-year-olds are scheduled for after dinner? “My recommendation is to set rules such as all their homework done after school and eat dinner before the sporting event,” she says. “Bring a snack for the child to eat on the way home and make sure it is a ‘sleep-friendly’ snack like bananas, yogurt, or cheese and whole wheat crackers. This way, when you arrive at home all the child has to do is take a quick shower and get into bed.”
That’s not to say there won’t be sleepless nights, when someone is sick, or there really is a nightmare—that’s what we signed up for when we became parents. The key is getting back to the old routine as quickly as possible, once the crisis has resolved.
If you’re setting kids up to get solid, uninterrupted sleep each night, that will hopefully mean more of the same for you. But remember consistency and a good wind-down routine should also apply to you. “Adults need bedtimes, too,” Rodan says. That means no bingeing Netflix shows until midnight, unfortunately. But you knew that already, didn’t you?
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