The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown off more routines than we can keep track of, including a very important one: sleep. Children who used to sleep independently without any issues are suddenly waking up multiple times each night, having trouble falling asleep, or refusing to sleep in their own bed.
More often than not, such behaviors stem from increased anxiety. In addition, changes in school and work schedules may have caused a disruption in sleep routines for parents and kids alike. During this time of difficulty and continued uncertainty, it’s important to help children get back on a sleep routine—and get them on board with the changes, too.
Benefits of a Consistent Sleep Routine
Children especially need a consistent bedtime routine, followed by enough hours of sleep to ensure not only their physiological well-being but also their emotional well-being. According to Dr. Rachel Dawkins at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital:
“Studies have shown that kids who regularly get an adequate amount of sleep have improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. Not getting enough sleep can lead to high blood pressure, obesity and even depression.”
As explained by Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, sleep researcher, and author of Why We Sleep, both children and adults need to take sleep more seriously—adults who sleep fewer than 8 hours and children who sleep fewer than 10 hours will have negative effects on their brain (such as memory loss) and body (such as high blood pressure). Indeed, research has shown that sleep protects our mental health, metabolism, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and immune system (which is particularly important to take care of during a pandemic).
How To Help Kids Understand
These facts might be alarming, but helping children understand why they need sleep doesn’t have to be scary. It may be helpful to use language with children that’s positive, outlining the benefits rather than dwelling on the negatives.
Parents can help explain some of these benefits, as well as other helpful information about why we sleep. Here’s an example of what you could say:
- “Just like food, sleep is one of the basic needs we require as humans. In fact, every species studied to date sleeps: elephants need 4 hours of sleep, tigers and lions sleep 15 hours, and squirrels sleep 16 hours. Our need for sleep must be met before any of our other needs can truly be met.”
If your kids are a little older, they might be interested in some of the science behind how sleep works:
- “Two factors influence when we want to sleep: our circadian rhythm (or internal clock) and adenosine, a chemical that builds up during the day. It creates a “sleep pressure” that becomes irresistible, and then it decreases when you sleep.”
- “Did you know there are two kinds of sleep? One kind—deep sleep—is when our brains store important information and delete stuff we don’t need. That’s critical for remembering facts and motor skills, like how to ride a bike.”
- “The other kind, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, is when we dream. During REM sleep, research has shown that we process our emotions, which helps us feel emotionally better after a good night’s sleep!”
Parents can also start conversations with their kids about sleep by first sharing their own experiences. Here are some prompts parents can use:
- When I have a hard time falling asleep, I can….
- When I wake up during the night, I usually…
- When I get a good night’s sleep, I wake up feeling…
- When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I wake up feeling…
As another option, parents can shift the conversation toward how sleep will help them with their goals for the next day. For example, when a child asks why they need to go to bed parents can say:
- You’ll feel energized and ready for the new day ahead! What is your goal for tomorrow?
- Sleep keeps our bodies healthy—what are some other things we can do to help our bodies stay healthy?
- Your body needs rest from the busy day you had today. What was your favorite part of today? What are you looking forward to for tomorrow?
Re-Establishing a Bedtime Routine
Here are seven common disruptions to sleep routine that have been exacerbated by COVID-19, and tips on how to help re-establish a bedtime routine to ensure your child is getting enough sleep without difficulty falling asleep or waking up during the night.
1. Routine Disruption: Your own lack of sleep
Routine Intervention: Model behavior
Your child might not be the only one getting less sleep as a result of the pandemic. Has your child ever gotten out of bed and found you still up working or having a restless night yourself? It’s important for parents to model the behaviors they want their child to see as healthy—plus it will have a positive impact on everyone’s emotional well-being.
To make it more fun, you can organize a family sleep challenge: record the number of hours slept and consistency in bedtime and wake time hours for a week! The family member who earns the most points can be rewarded with something fun like a fun new pillow, glow-in-the-dark stars for their ceiling, or getting to choose the movie for family movie night.
2. Routine disruption: Decrease in socialization
Routine Intervention: Make time for conversation
Since the beginning of the pandemic your child has probably had a significant decrease in social interactions. The lack of personal interactions may cause anxiousness and a fear of being alone. Severe anxiety issues, the fear of being alone, and not having the coping mechanisms to self-soothe and comfort can cause children to have a difficult time falling asleep or sleeping alone in their bed through the night.
You can brainstorm with your child ideas for when they’re feeling lonely, such as calling a family member or friend. Creating cards or crafts for loved ones as a way to spread joy will also help them to feel better. If your child is worried about someone they haven’t seen in a while, schedule weekly check-ins to reassure your child that they are never alone and they are always loved, no matter the circumstances. If your family has experienced the loss of a loved one recently, your child may be worrying about losing their parents too. Acknowledge and honor those feelings, but also remind them of all the ways you’re taking care of yourself and practicing safety measures to ensure you stay healthy.
3. Routine Disruption: More time with technology
Routine Intervention: Turn off technology
If your child is attending school virtually, they may be having more screen time than they are used to. Both the mental activity of using technology and being exposed to the light promotes wakefulness, emits delays in our internal clock and delays the release of our sleep hormones. Rather than having screen time before bed you can try yoga, read social emotional learning books to your child to spark discussions about emotions, read a meditation book together, sing a calm and quiet song, or practice gratitude together with a gratitude journal.
Turning off the iPads and tablets before bedtime will help avoid disruptions in a child’s sleep cycle and ensure longer sleep times. Turning off technology before bedtime will also be helpful for parents. For more information visit sleepfoundation.org.
4. Routine Disruption: Overstimulation
Routine Intervention: Quiet activities
During the busyness of our day, we may forget to find mindful moments. Changes in schedule combined with exposure to upsetting news on TV, or family events, such as a parent being laid off, can be a lot for a child to process. If they are still thinking or worrying about many things when they go to bed, they may have a difficult time falling asleep.
Throughout the day, you can remind them that they are safe and that they have the skills to sleep on their own and self-soothe. You can add a big stuffed animal beside them in their bed so they remember they are not alone. Before going to sleep is the best time to practice mindfulness whether through yoga or meditation. A social emotional learning app, Wisdom: The World of Emotions (iOS, Android) includes recordings of meditations for children (and adults) to follow along with! These activities will help your child feel calm and ready to rest both their minds and bodies.
5. Routine Disruption: Poor nutrition and caffeine increase
Routine Intervention: Avoid caffeine
Has your child been getting an extra scoop of ice cream before bed? You and your child might be having a snack outside your normal routine which, depending on the food, can have a negative impact on sleep. Maintaining a balanced diet will contribute to better sleep for both children and adults, and foods that contain sugar should be avoided two hours before bedtime as it may cause sleep restlessness.
Additionally, caffeine hijacks and occupies the receptors of adenosine, preventing you from feeling sleepy for 5 to 7 hours. In other words, it blocks the sleep-inducing chemicals in your brain. Caffeine is present in coffee, dark chocolate, certain teas, hot chocolate, energy drinks, chocolate and coffee ice cream and even pain relievers, and should all be avoided before going to sleep.
6. Routine disruption: Inconsistency
Routine Intervention: Consistency
Dr. Walker shared that we can’t necessarily get back any lost sleep. He says, “Sleep is not like a bank in a sense you can’t accumulate a debt and hope to pay it off at a later time.” Many of us do this as adults, getting less sleep during the week and “making it up” on the weekend. The problem is this isn’t consistent sleep. Dr. Walker shares that habits like getting 5 hours of sleep each night during the week and 8-10 on the weekend is associated with an unhealthy lifestyle, and increases our risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. It is important for parents to establish a routine of consistent sleep for their children—plus working together with kids to problem solve the best ways to maintain a consistent sleep schedule will boost their independence.
One way to start is with a sleep journal. Encourage your child to draw connections between what they do before they go to sleep, how well they sleep, and how they feel when they wake up. This can help your child keep track of their sleep and compare days they slept well to days they didn’t sleep well.
7. Routine disruption: Inactivity
Routine Intervention: Daily exercise
Although many adults might have taken advantage of time at home to exercise more, for others it may be one more thing that got brushed to the side as you took on new challenges like remote learning. Combined with missing gym class and recess at in-person school, plus less time running around with friends, this might mean our children are also getting fewer opportunities for aerobic exercise.
According to the Sleep Foundation, exercise can help realign your internal clock and “boost serotonin (a hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle), which may improve the brain’s ability to metabolize serotonin and regulate sleep.” Making sure your child gets 30 minutes of exercise a day—whether it is running outside, going for a walk, playing a sport, or yoga—will also help you stay active and sleep better!
When we get a good night’s sleep our mind and body thanks us! Parents can help their children establish and maintain a consistent sleep schedule. By having conversations about their sleep or keeping a sleep journal children will begin to see how transformative it is for their ability to learn and empathize with others – all because they are routinely getting a good night’s sleep. We can’t forget how important sleep is to our children’s, and our own, well-being.
“When sleep is abundant, minds flourish.” – Dr. Matthew Walker