My son's teacher asked me if I had a few tips for her class of 11 year olds; many of whom were struggling to sleep. Their issues seem to centre around stress and worry, as well as being on screens too close to bedtime. Below are the tips, I thought I would leave them here in case they help anyone else.
Humans are the only species to fight sleep; animals are just not as daft as us!
Sleep isn’t just rest, it’s also when we file things into memory, when our emotions and mood are reset, and when our body and mind are repaired. Sleep is more important than diet or exercise combined, and when we don’t get enough sleep we tend to feel emotional, irritable, and like everything is harder.
Good sleep isn’t about what you do in the hour before you go to bed. Good sleep starts when you wake up and what you do throughout the day all counts – for example if you eat rubbish food and lots of sugar, or you have a lot of caffeine, or spend all day on a screen, or don’t do any exercise, sleep will be much harder for you come bedtime.
There are lots of different things you can do to help sleep. Here are my top 7:
1. Keep the same bedtime and wake up time each day
Our bodies work on a clock called a circadian rhythm, and this clock means you are naturally sleepy at some times of the day, and really alert at others. Sleep is easier when we have a bedtime and wake time that match our clock.
When we mix up our bed and wake times too much we confuse the clock, and we end up finding it difficult to sleep. Try going to bed at the same time each night, and getting up at the same time each morning, and try not to change this by more than an hour – even at weekends or during the holidays.
2. Turn off your screen
There is little area in the brain that monitors natural light going into the eyes. When it detects light we feel awake and alert, and when it detects fading light it tells the body to start releasing sleep hormones so that we begin to feel sleepy and tired. Artificial light i.e. house lights, TV’s, phone screens trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, and stop us feeling sleepy. Screens are the worst because they emit blue light and blue light confuses the brain the most. Looking at a screen delays sleepiness by about 3 hours and makes it almost impossible to go to sleep.
Try turning your screen off for a few hours before bed. If you can’t do that change the settings on your screen to ‘night shift’ or turn the screen brightness down so that there is less light going in to the eyes.
3. Write down your thoughts
Often we are busy rushing around all day, and it’s only when we get to bedtime that we actually stop. When we stop our minds then whizz through all the things that happened during the day, and we can feel really stressed/upset or worried about things. This worry then stops us sleeping.
Try having a note book next to the bed and before you go to sleep write down anything that happened during the day or that is worrying you. Once you have the thoughts down on paper they can stop whizzing around in your mind.
4. Do some stretching or yoga
Our body and brain talk to each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; they want to know how the other one is doing. When we feel calm and relaxed our body usually feels soft and floppy. When our body and muscles feel stiff and tight the brain usually feels stressed and anxious, which can make it hard to get to sleep.
Try doing some stretching or gentle yoga before bedtime as this relaxes the muscles, which in turn relaxes the mind. Think of your muscles like a sponge full of water, heavy and full up with tension or stress. When you stretch your muscles (pull the sponge apart) all the water (stress) can flow out.
5. Do some breathing
Your brain is very interested in how you breathe, because if you don’t breathe you die. In fact the brain prioritises information from the respiratory system over every other system in the body! Your brain monitors your breathing and uses that information to decide how you are feeling. For example if you are breathing very fast and shallow the brain will decide you are stressed. We can trick our brain into feeling calm by the way that we breathe. When we feel calm it is easier to get to sleep.
Before bed try spending a few minutes practicing breathing
Breathe in and out through the nose (close the mouth)
Make the in breath shorter than the out breath (lengthen the exhale)
Breathe down into the belly (feel the belly rise and fall, rather than the chest)
Try and breathe light; like a whisper
You can also practice something called box breathing. Find a square or rectangle – a picture frame, window, book etc. Using the nose inhale for a count of 4 letting your eyes move along the top of the square, hold the breathe for a count of 4 as your eyes scan along the side of the square, exhale for a count of 4 as your eyes scan along the bottom of the square, hold the breathe for 4 as your eyes scan up the other side. Repeat for a few breaths or for as long as you like.
6. Try some mindfulness or meditation
We have different brain waves for different states of being awake and asleep. When we are awake and our brain is busy we are in Beta brain waves, when we are resting we are in Alpha, and when we are in deep sleep we are in Delta. To go to sleep the brain needs to from Beta, into Alpha, and then into Delta. If the mind is really really busy, or we feel very stressed and anxious, the brain finds it very hard to get into Alpha brainwaves and we can then find it very hard to get to sleep. Doing a quick meditation or mindfulness exercise (calm app or headspace are good apps) can help the brain make this shift into Alpha so it can sink down into Delta. The breathing exercises can also help with this.
7. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier
If you do not feel you are getting enough sleep, a very simple win is to go to bed 15 mins earlier each night. It’s only 15 minutes but over a week that is an extra 1 hr 45 mins of sleep. Over a month that is a whole extra night of sleep. Try going to bed 30 mins earlier and you will get an extra 2 nights sleep per month!