World Sleep Day: Sleep is Essential for Health

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World Sleep Day is March 17, and this year’s theme is Sleep is Essential for Health. We all end our day the same, crawling into bed for a good night’s sleep. Why do so many people struggle to get enough sleep if they go to bed every night, seven nights a week, 365 days a year?

As this year’s theme echoes, getting enough restful sleep is essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Like exercise, eating nutritious food and drinking enough water, sleep is a significant pillar of our health. So it’s cause for concern that so many struggles with sleep. This is where professionals like Dr. Penny Corkum come into play. 

Dr. Penny Corkum, a child psychologist and professor at Dalhousie with the Departments of Psychology & Neuroscience and Psychiatry, specializes in pediatric sleep and neurodevelopmental disorders. While studying for her Ph.D., Dr. Corkum attended a keynote presentation on sleep that changed her view on it forever. “As I sat there and listened, I realized how intertwined sleep is to every aspect of our health.” From there, Dr. Corkum began experimental research into the links between sleep and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD.

Dr. Penny Corkum

When thinking about sleep disorders, the person who comes to mind is an adult, working a full-time job, burnt out and having difficulty falling asleep at the end of the day. However, in Dr. Corkum’s line of work, school-aged children have the same sleep struggles. “Many think that children should be able to fall asleep easily at the end of the day. However, you look at these school-aged children; probably about a third have undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders, and many others have poor sleep but do not have a sleep disorder.”

The most common sleep problem in children, in fact, across all ages, is insomnia. It’s common for children to have sleep problems like falling to asleep here and there, but if sleep problems become frequent, such as several times a week, and chronic, meaning happening for more than six months, this could mean the child has insomnia disorder. Unfortunately, finding treatment for sleep problems can be a difficult journey. “There is a huge number of people struggling with sleep problems, but not enough healthcare professionals to meet that need,” says Dr. Corkum, “often physicians, psychologists, and other people who may diagnose and treat sleep problems do not receive much training about pediatric sleep disorders in their schooling. As a result, when they enter the healthcare field, they’re unlikely to assess and diagnose or even treat the problem. So we end up with all these people struggling to sleep and little to no resources to help parents help their children sleep well” 

Seeing this gap, Dr. Corkum and a team of pediatric sleep experts across Canada began to develop Better Nights, Better Nights, an evidence-based online program to support parents of children ages 1-10 years old who experience sleeping problems, including difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking too early. The program focuses on behavioural treatment options, proven to work, to avoid using medication to treat sleep problems in children. The program has five sessions:

  1. Introduction: An introduction to the program and information about how sleep works and how sleep problems develop    
  2. Healthy Sleep Practices: Learn about healthy sleep practices and routines and how doing things differently during the day and at night can help your child sleep better
  3. Settling to Sleep: Focus on problems settling to sleep independently at naptime and bedtime
  4. Looking Back and Ahead; Review your goals and progress you’ve made during the program, and develop a plan for the future

The program also has weekly activities to complete, such as learning how to create sleep routines and a healthy sleep environment and practicing techniques to reduce stress. 

“Working in the field of sleep is incredibly rewarding. We have gotten really good at helping people regain control of their sleep schedules through behavioural and environmental change. Getting better sleep results in better health overall. The best part of my job is seeing the positive difference my work has on people’s lives.” 

If you or your child is struggling with sleep, please visit Better Nights, Better Days or World Sleep Day for more resources.