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.
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.
However, for many of us, regardless of age it’s usually a process of trial and error to establish how much sleep is beneficial to us.
Quality vs Quantity
It’s important to recognise that the amount of sleep that we have isn’t the same as the quality. In general terms, 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. So how can we help our children and young people to gain a restful sleep?
What can we do to improve our sleep quality and quantity?
It may come as no surprise to know that the 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, but there are things that we can do to limit the effects of these stressors such that we are able to get the valuable sleep that we all need.
The strategies that we might want to introduce to our children and young people also have benefits for adults too so adopting these behaviours as a family may help them to become part of the normal family routine:
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 so if you’re considering reducing or eliminating fizzy drinks and energy drinks from our children’s diet for their general health benefit, doing so will help their sleep quality too.
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.
It’s sometimes helpful for adults and children to work together to identify opportunities for creating a more relaxing bedroom environment. 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. Strategies such as these help us to unwind before we sleep and re-focus the mind away from anything that may be causing us stress or anxiety.
Share your feelings in a safe place with a safe person
Children and young people experience several significant life events that impact upon changes in the physical mental and/or social health. As mentioned earlier, these are all factors that have a direct impact upon sleep quality. However, 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 a restful sleep and enhance our general health and wellbeing, never has there been a more important time to be kind to ourselves.