How can we support children psychologically during the Coronavirus pandemic?

There's been a big rise in the number of prescriptions for medication to help children sleep.
We get some professional tips to support your children during the pandemic. Credit: ITV News

There's been a big rise in the number of prescriptions for medication to help children sleep, according to figures seen by ITV News Central.

NHS data shows almost half a million were given to young people under the age of sixteen in 2019 - a figure that's risen steadily over four years. It's thought computers and social media use is one reason behind the rise.

So how can families help and support children on this topic, without needing medication ?

ITV News Central has asked Dr Charlotte Hilton, a Chartered Psychologist from Derbyshire, to provide some tips for supporting your children during the pandemic.

By Dr Hilton

Why is sleep important?

The role of sleep in contributing to our ability to function well and maintain a healthy lifestyle has been long established.

Sleep helps us to manage our mood, facilitates decision-making and productivity, improves reflexes, judgement and our ability to learn.

Lack of sleep is also associated with an increased risk of weight gain and obesity, stroke, depression and diabetes for example. The NHS recommends that:

  • children of 3-5 years should sleep for 10-13 hours including naps

  • children of 6-12 years should sleep for 9-12 hours

  • people of teenage years usually benefit from 8-10 hours of sleep.

  • Quality vs Quantity

Evidence suggests that we are likely to benefit more from fewer hours of uninterrupted, restful sleep than we are for longer hours that are disrupted.

Causes of sleep disturbance for children and young people are often the same as adults. For example, physical, mental and/or social changes can all impact upon our sleep.

  • Routines and Schedules

Our bodies tend to respond well to patterns and routines. This is partly what contributes to managing our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) and why some people are affected by overseas travel with differing time-zones.

Wherever possible try to go to sleep at a similar time every evening, particularly on weekdays when children may be attending school/being home-schooled, and adults may be working.

Trying to sleep when we are over or under tired can have an impact on the likelihood that we will fall asleep soon after going to bed which also affects sleep quality so developing a sleep schedule can help to avoid this.

  • Limit screen time

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that most of us may be using our electronic devices more to stay connected to people. Children and young people in particular are benefitting from the increased access to technology for learning and development, although using such devices too close to bedtime or continuing to use devices whilst we are in bed can have detrimental effects on sleep.

The light emitted from electronics such as a phone, tablet or games console alerts our brain which can make it very difficult to ‘switch-off’ and wind down before bedtime. What’s more, if we use such devices whilst in bed, we don’t learn to disassociate active time from resting time, and this can be problematic too.

As a general guide, try to stop using any electronic device for at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime and include this in your sleep routine.

  • Avoid eating or drinking too close to bedtime

Eating or drinking anything too close to bedtime can make it difficult for us to sleep because our bodies are actively digesting what we have eaten.

Caffeine and fizzy drinks in particular can be particularly disruptive to our sleep.

  • Exercise

Is there any part of enhancing our health and wellbeing where being physically active and exercising isn’t important?

In addition to a whole range of health-enhancing and disease prevention benefits, regular activity and exercise also plays a key role in our sleep. Children and young people aged 5-18 should aim for at least 60 minutes of moderate activity daily, that should also include weight-bearing activity twice weekly.

Being active can help young people socialise with others (albeit virtually currently), build confidence and improve resilience which help to reduce some of the things that keep them awake at night.

  • Create a relaxing space and be mindful

Keeping our bedroom tidy isn’t just something to keep parents happy, but has a direct impact upon our emotional health and sleep quality too. If children are surrounded by dirty socks and the dinner plate that hasn’t made it back to the kitchen, it’s difficult to create a relaxing environment that aids sleep.

The role of relaxation to aid our sleep is also supported by the growing interest in mindfulness.

There are a number of strategies that might be described as being mindful but common ones include paying attention to our breathing, perhaps breathing more slowly and deeply and paying attention to any tension in the body for example.

  • Share your feelings in a safe place with a safe person

With the dramatic changes that have arisen from the Covid-19 pandemic, our children and young people are arguably subject to greater stress than ever.

It’s important that if young people are feeling particularly upset or anxious that they have a safe place and a safe person that they can talk to. Sometimes this might be a family member or friend but there are also lots of different support available for young people.

Above all else, to aid restful sleep and enhance our general health and wellbeing, never has there been a more important time to be kind to ourselves.

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