Consider the work our brains do all day — thinking, feeling, decision-making and worrying about our family, friends and even our own safety. Sleep is the one time our brains get to rest.
To get enough of that rest, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 10 to 13 hours of nightly sleep for kids ages 3 to 5 years old; 9 to 12 hours for kids ages 6 to 12; and 8 to 10 hours for teens. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, only 4 in 10 middle schoolers and 3 in 10 high schoolers are getting enough sleep.
Much of our emotional health is tied to sleep as well, and lack of sleep can create a downward spiral: Issues with mood or anxiety can worsen sleep, and lack of sleep worsens mood or anxiety. Our best bet is to break the cycle as soon as we can.
I know that’s easier said than done, especially with homework, hormones and college pressures looming over kids and teens — not to mention their social lives, or lack thereof right now. Implementing good sleep hygiene practices as a family is key — for both parents and kids.
Start with a consistent bedtime routine
This means trying to keep weekend sleep and wake routines as close to the weekdays as possible. This is hard, especially for teens whose body clocks are naturally shifted later in a way that doesn’t always line up with the school day. But the more consistent the routine on the weekends, the easier it will be to fall asleep and wake up on weekdays, when it’s typically the toughest.
Starting winding down at least an hour before bedtime
Keep screens out of the bedtime routine — and the bedroom
The blue light that screens emit can tell your brain that it’s time to be awake — the exact opposite of what we want before bed. Not only should kids stop using their phones or screens an hour or so before bedtime, it’s best to keep them out of the room in order to reduce temptation to use them, but also to reduce the emitted light that keeps the room from being fully dark. That means laptops, tablets, gaming systems and yes, cellphones.
In my experience, although putting phones away can be a disappointment at first, many older kids find they feel liberated, more mindful and get much better sleep when their phones are left in buckets on the dining table and they don’t pick them up until after breakfast.
Create an environment that’s conducive to sleep
In addition to eliminating devices, setting up the room just right can play a big role in the quality of the sleep you get. You want it to be cozy, inviting and safe. Try keeping your child’s favorite stuffed animals, toys or a symbol of something soothing nearest to their bedside. The room should be as dark as possible (blackout curtains work) and the temperature on the cooler side.
Try not to eat or drink an hour before bed
Your body does a lot of work to digest food, pull out all of its nutrients and turn those nutrients into energy. You want to keep that process from happening too late at night because not only can certain foods, like sugars, give you a burst of energy right before bed — if you haven’t waited long enough to go to sleep, it could be a recipe for reflux and stomach discomfort.
For the older members of the household, avoid caffeine as much as you can, and not just before bed. Caffeine any time of day, even late morning, can affect your sleep. If you want better quality, deeper sleep, cut the tea, coffee or caffeinated sodas from the day.
Try meditation for sleep while in bed
With your eyes closed and your body still, start with the very tip of your forehead and, moving downward, relax each and every muscle in your face. Continue moving downward through your body to draw your focus on different body parts, relaxing your muscles as you “scan” that area in your mind. Many kids I’ve worked with tell me they barely make it to their arms before falling asleep.
Keep the bed only for sleep
It’s also helpful for kids to stay out of bed for nonsleep activities, including homework or even listening to music while texting their friends. You want your brain to associate the bed with sleep, and that physical separation can help.
If meditation, counting or other activities don’t work and your child can’t fall asleep after 20 to 30 minutes, they should get out of bed and try a relaxing activity until they are feeling sleepy enough to try sleeping again. This helps your brain continue to connect the bed with being sleepy, not awake.
Model good sleep hygiene for your kids
As with most things parenting-related, practicing what you preach not only reinforces the message, it shows your kids what to do. By implementing the same techniques that you expect of them, it becomes a family activity. Choose some nightly rituals as a family, like screen-free reading time after dinner, or playing a guided meditation and following it together.
Stay on the lookout for signs that your child is struggling
The brain is one of our most precious assets, and as with any precious asset, there are ways to take care of it and nurture it so that it can do its job best. And, it all starts — and ends — with sleep.