We all have some trouble sleeping at different times in our lives. Insomnia…the dreaded night time ailment that includes trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep through the night, or waking up too early or too late. Sometimes, insomnia can occur during times of transition or times of uncertainty, such as starting a new job or starting college. There are many other reasons that someone might have problems sleeping, such as anxiety, too much caffeine, or not giving ourselves enough time to wind down from the day. At other times, it may happen “out of the blue,” and we may not be able to find a reason as to why it’s happening.
Medications for insomnia can be helpful for many individuals, however, child and adolescent psychiatrist don’t usually prescribe them without first trying to improve someone’s “sleep hygiene”. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and routines that we create for ourselves to help promote a healthy amount of quality sleep, the kind that makes us feel rested in the morning. Parents have the responsibility of helping their children learn those techniques and practice them. Parents also have the responsibility of providing a model for them.
By the end of this post, you’ll be an expert at what it means to have good sleep hygiene practices.
1) Maintain a regular bedtime and wake time, even on weekends and holidays. It’s important for your body to stay in its natural rhythm, and staying on the same schedule makes it easier to rise on Monday mornings to start the week.
2) Create a soothing environment for sleep. Your body will react when the temperature is too hot or too cold, noise level is too high, lighting is too bright, or other comforts are not to your body’s liking. Things such as a sound machine or white noise machine, eye shades, or blackout curtains can be helpful. Keep in mind that it may take time to figure out the best environment for you or your child.
3) Electronics should be out of the bedroom. This one tends to cause some grumbling from your child. It’s recommended that TVs, gaming systems, and computers not be kept in the bedroom, given the temptation they can cause to use them at night when someone can’t sleep. If you or your child need music, consider a sound machine or an MP3 player that doesn’t have a bright screen.
4) Turn off all electronics (including cellphone usage) at least 30-45 minutes before bedtime. Your brain continues to process the things that you’ve seen, heard and interacted with after the screens are off. Allow yourself enough time to wind down that processing activity so that it’s easier to fall asleep.
5) Create a bedtime routine that helps your body and mind slow down in order to begin to feel ready for sleep. This is a critical step and can include things such as brushing teeth, choosing clothes for the next day, taking a warm bath or shower, journaling, listening to relaxing music, praying, meditating, or anything else that lets your body know that it’s time for sleep.
6) Use the bed only for sleeping. Our minds need to be trained (or retrained) for this, especially if we’ve gotten into habits such as reading, doing homework, watching TV, checking email, or playing video games in bed. This habit can be a hard one to break, so you’ll need to be persistent in avoiding doing anything else in bed.
7) Exercise regularly, but don’t exercise immediately before bed. Physical activity can help improve sleep and energy levels. However, it’s best to do moderate to heavy physical exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime so that your body’s internal state returns to a normal level of activity before trying to sleep.
8) Limit drinks, especially those with caffeine or alcohol, and heavy meals in the evenings. Having drinks after 7pm,especially those with caffeine or alcohol, can lead to sleep problems and lead to waking up to use the restroom. This is disruptive for your sleep and sometimes can lead to trouble falling back asleep. Heavy meals that are rich in fatty foods can lead to indigestion, which can disrupt sleep in some people.
9) Don’t stay in bed if you can’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes. This also applies for when you wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep. In this situation, it’s best to get out of bed, go to a different area in your room, use low lighting, and try to do something relaxing and not too stimulating. This could be something like writing or reading or doing a puzzle. Choose reading material that is not too exciting or engaging. You need to continue doing the calming activity until you’re feeling sleepy, and that’s the time you return to bed again. If you’re still awake and tossing or worrying, get out of bed and return to the relaxing activity again until you get sleepy. This might have to happen several times as you train your mind to associate the bed with sleeping. Remember that using electronics when you can’t sleep can keep your brain overly engaged and focused, which then makes it hard to fall back asleep- so avoid this habit.
10) Limit any daytime naps to 20 or 30 minutes at the most. If you feel a nap is absolutely necessary, make sure to set an alarm so that you don’t oversleep. Your brain and body need to rest more fully at night. When naps are too long during the daytime, you may not sleep as well at night.
11) Make a “To Do” list before bedtime. This is especially important if you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious about upcoming responsibilities. You could also keep a small notepad near your bed if you wakeup and start to overthink or worry at night. It might help to get some of those thoughts down on paper so that you can give space for calmness to enter your mind.
Now that you’ve got a good idea of what sleep hygiene is all about, give yourself and your children the challenge of making small changes one at a time so that you can improve your sleep. It can be done. Your body will be better off if you’re able to manage the insomnia without any medication.