The Battle for the ZZZs

By Brittany Williamson, MS, LMHC and Catherine Simms, PhD, BCBA-D

Parents of school-age children can attest that the sleep struggle is real. We consistently receive questions and concerns regarding sleep, sleep hygiene, and parental frustration regarding sleep. While it may seem the cards are stacked against us in this battle for the ZZZ’s with afterschool activities, homework loads, screen time (posts coming soon on this one), those crafty pleas for just one more hug, and how suddenly thirsty they become once their parents have left their room, it’s important that we don’t concede. Developing good sleep habits is vital to mental health and learning for our kids. Not getting the recommended 10-11 hours for this age group can lead to inferior mood management, impulsivity, hyperactivity, anxiety, and poor cognitive functioning.

The Symptoms: A Closer Look

  • Mood: Poor sleep hygiene leads to an over active amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for regulating emotions). Without the ability to objectively process their emotions, the school-aged child can become irritable, cranky, and easily frustrated by simple tasks.
  • Behavior: It’s been observed that the symptoms of sleep-deprivation and ADHD mirror each other. For ages 6-18, missing out on those 10 hours can lead to an increase in distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
  • Cognitive Function: Another area of the brain highly influenced by sleep is the prefrontal cortex, one part of the brain that is key in executive functions such as learning and retaining new material. During sleep, new connections are consolidated and strengthened in this region. If this processing time is cut short, our memory, attention span, decision making, and creativity all suffer the consequence.
  • Anxiety: Even if your students don’t identify as being “stressed”, it doesn’t mean their bodies aren’t. Increased stress releases cortisol, also known as the “fight or flight” hormone, into the body to support its “survival” functioning. Too much cortisol can trigger anxiety (and shut down other parts of the brain).

Winning the War: Ways to Fight for Better ZZZ’s on Behalf of Kids

  • Keep Them Moving: Getting at least an hour of exercise during the day leads to better sleep at night.
  • Stay Curious & Positive.If you notice that your child is constantly tired or is receiving reports of falling asleep in class, do some investigating to find out what’s getting in the way. Are they sick? Staying up on social media? Prone to nightmares? Show them you care and encourage positive solutions!
  • Just Say “No” to Screen Time: See our upcoming blogs on the evidence-based effects of screen time and encourage children to power down at least one hour before bedtime (more if you’re seeing significant problems). Easier said than done when even homework is digital these days. If you know your kids have a lot of online homework, encourage them to complete it as soon as they get home. This allows more time for play before bed, too! Win-win!
  • Avoid Sugar & Caffeine: This one is self-explanatory. We’re trying to shut down the brain, not amp it up. As late afternoon approaches try to minimize sugar/soda/caffeine intake.
  • Incorporate Mindfulness: As a bedtime ritual, try doing a family meditation to help power down the body and mind. If only one child seems to struggle, you can either do this in their room with them, or as a family to build support as a group. This is a wonderful tool for spending quality time and teaching them to quiet their busy brain. Smiling Mind is a great app and has sleep meditations for different age groups. You can also reference our blog post on teaching calming strategies and incorporate some calming strategies into a bed time routine.

Stay positive! Research has shown that adding as little as a half an hour of sleep per night for school-age children makes it easier for them to manage their moods and behavior allowing them to focus on their schoolwork and perform at their best! Have a conversation with your family about the importance of healthy sleep practices. Having their buy in is half the battle!

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