It’s well known that getting a good sleep is part of our overall health, but how often does that actually happen? World Sleep Day is March 19 and this year’s theme is Regular Sleep. Healthy Future. Regular sleep means that you prioritize a consistent pattern of going to bed and getting up that enables you to sleep well, and efficiently.
“I think that we often take sleep for granted, and it’s one of the first things we sacrifice in our busy lives. We think that we can catch up another time, or we can manage fine without that much sleep,” says Dr. Megan Thomas, IWK Health developmental pediatrician and associate professor, Departments of Pediatrics, and Psychology and Neuroscience. “I definitely have been guilty of that.”
Three components of good quality sleep are duration, continuity and depth. To feel well-rested and refreshed, people need a sufficient quantity of sleep, and this amount varies throughout our lives. But quality is also important. If sleep is fragmented, it disrupts the different sleep cycles where important processes such as memory consolidation, are meant to occur. Missing out on those processes in whole or in part affects the quality of sleep and can impact on health and well-being even if the total time for sleep appears to be appropriate. Disturbed sleep can also sometimes prevent deep sleep being achieved.
Thomas notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on peoples’ sleep and for people who have unusual sleep schedules, either due to being new parents or working night shifts, etc. it can be extra challenging. But there are things people can do to help improve their sleep.
- Tips for sleeping with an unusual schedule:
- If you have to get up frequently during the night to feed or change a baby, it can be helpful to try and keep it feeling like nighttime and not signal your body that it is now daytime; keep lights dim, and minimize interaction and noise. Also try to stay comfortable and relaxed, avoid feeling frustrated or worried about the impact on your own sleep. What you are doing is important. All these things will help you fall asleep again quickly afterwards.
- For shift workers, following the same bedtime routine, even if not going to bed at the same time can be really helpful. If you’re exhausted and just want to fall into bed and sleep, fair enough, but otherwise give yourself a period to wind down and switch off after working. Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom. Having a notepad and pen next to the bed can be helpful if you suddenly think of something that you must not forget or are worrying about — write it down and then let it go. Also, ensure that you are safe to drive before going home after a shift. A 10–20 minute nap may be essential to make sure you’re alert enough to drive safely but avoid a longer nap which may make you feel worse when you wake up.
- Tips for getting kids to sleep:
- Follow the same routine every night to prepare for bed. Doing this sends messages to our bodies that it’s sleep time and makes us more ready to go to sleep when we snuggle into bed. Try to use the same bedtime and getting-up-time every day too, including the weekend.
- Avoid electronic games and devices, including TV, for at least an hour before bedtime and don’t have any in the bedroom. Make sure the bedroom is a pleasant, not-too-stimulating environment that is cool (around 16–18 degrees Celsius), dark and quiet.
- Avoid caffeinated foods and drinks (that includes chocolate) for at least six hours before bedtime, or even longer.
- Allow children to settle off to sleep independently, perhaps after a short story or cuddle. This will mean when they wake naturally in the night, which we all do, they will be able to settle off to sleep again without needing their parents to be there.
- In the morning, make sure there is bright light to provide a clear signal that it’s daytime to help keep getting-up-time consistent.
Thomas has devoted much of her time and expertise to studying sleep. Previous studies have looked at different ways sleep can be improved through behavioural strategies, immediate release and controlled release melatonin, and what evidence there is for different strategies and different medications. Her PhD was a critical ethnographic study of parents with young children with, and without, disabilities, to help understand more about their daily lives, including sleep. Currently, she is in the process of setting up a new research project, Sleep for Health in Hospital, which promotes healthy sleep for children in hospital and for their parents.
“Working with children with neurodisabilities and their families led me to be aware of how common sleep problems are in children with disabilities, and what an overwhelming impact that can have on the whole family,” Thomas says. “I had never really been taught about sleep, or how to manage it even though this was one of the most common problems parents were telling me about. I was determined to find out more and really provide solutions that worked.”
COVID-19 has had a negative impact on many people’s sleep. The team behind Better Nights, Better days (led by IWK Health’s Dr. Penny Corkum) has adapted their e-health sleep program to support parents and children who are experiencing sleep problems during this time. For more information visit betternightsbetterdays.ca/covid-19.