better sleep, better brain maximise your kid's brain

Better sleep, better brain: Maximise your kid’s brain

Dr Shelley Hyman

For many parents, the beginning signs of kids having poor sleep are rather innocuous and almost unnoticeable, until….

  • Your child may be slow to get out of bed and get ready for the day ahead
  • They may be more irritable and cranky than usual
  • You catch them falling asleep during the day, or they say they want to nap during the afternoon
  • The school grades are slipping
  • The school teacher mentions your child is having difficulty paying attention or concentrating.

And although your child might protest that they are not sleepy or tired at all, if they are showing some of the above behaviours, your child may be sleep deprived. Another big sign of sleep deprivation is very inconsistent bed times and wake-up times.

Why is this a problem?

It is no brainer that sleep is good for you. In fact, it is essential for people to have good sleep to function throughout the day.

“Think of sleep as a chance for the body to recharge for the next day.”

Sleep helps the brain consolidate memories and information received throughout the day. It also allows the body to heal and repair cell structure, and maintain hormone balance within the body.

Lack of sleep can be dangerous for adults; fatigue and exhaustion affects our decision making, mood reaction times and can play a part in workplace accidents, car crashes etc. Lack of sleep in kids will also affect their memory, attention skills, concentration, mood and much more. More importantly, it disrupts healthy brain development.

Kids may have difficulty falling and staying asleep for many reasons, but luckily for you there are steps you can take to ensure that your child is receiving the healthy dose of sleep they need to power through the day!

  1. Enforce a regular morning and bedtime schedule

Why? We are creatures of habit, and so are our bodies. Bedtime routines help the body and brain to associate a set of habits with the ensuing rest and sleep. Conversely, consistent morning routines teaches the body to get energised and ready for the day. These routines, if repeated consistently, will make it easier for your child to fall asleep, and to wake up without much struggle and fatigue.

Make up a routine and stick to it

Find out (a) how many hours of sleep your child needs, (b) when they need to wake up in time for school, and then (c) what time they should be falling asleep. Set deadlines for when the child must be in bed by, have the lights turned off, have distracting devices taken away etc.

Work from there and add in activities your child must do, e.g. brush teeth, wash/shower, prepare the school bag. Then add in optional activities that can help relax and settle your child, e.g. read a book, discuss the day’s events with your child, do some fantasy play with your child. Most importantly, do not introduce exercise right during this routine.

Set the morning routine much the same way. You can set an alarm or be the alarm (but be consistent). Introduce morning light to your child (discussed later), followed by brushing teeth, washing/showering, getting dressed, getting school items ready, breakfast, but it is up to you on the order.

  1. Bed is for sleep

We all tend to do things in bed, be it read, play games, do school work, and it has basically been turned into the living room couch. But what happens is that our body associates the bed with wakefulness and activity, and not with sleep and rest. Limit the bed for only sleep, rest, or naps. Reading in bed, if part of the bedtime routine, is ok as well.

  1. Avoid bright lights before bedtime

Actively dim and reduce any lights in the house. Why? Our body’s biological clock works in sync with the amount of light the body is exposed to. The more light our brain perceives, the more awake we will stay. As soon as it gets dark, our body releases melatonin, a sleep hormone, which drop’s our body temperature and prepares us for sleep.

This is the product of years of evolution and our bodies are just hard-wired to be this way. The trouble is with the advent of artificial light, we will continue to experience “daylight” well after the sun has actually set.

  1. Change out the lightbulbs that are LED or fluorescent in the bedroom

These lightbulbs emit blue light which suppresses the body’s release of melatonin. If you like to read to your child as part of the night time routine, or if they like to read by themselves, it is recommended to use red lightbulb for the bedside lamp. As opposed to blue light, red light will not suppress the release of melatonin.

  1. Have a digital curfew

Yes, that means taking away any tablets, computers, mobile phones from your child at least 30 minutes before their bedtime. These devices will emit high concentrations of blue light. Kids (and most adults) will be on devices up until they decide to close their eyes. Letting them use these devices will undo the hard work you’ve already put in.

  1. Install red lights in the bathroom

Part of most kids’ bedtime routines is to brush their teeth, wash their face etc. Bathroom lights that emit blue light will keep suppressing melatonin. Install red lights that can be independently turned on for bedtime routines. This would be especially useful if your child needs to relive themselves in the middle of the night.

  1. Introduce bright lights in the morning

Draw open those curtains, open the windows, pull up the blinds!

Why? Our body is really sensitive to light. The light we receive, especially in the morning, promotes our brain to release cortisol and produce serotonin. Cortisol levels rise and decrease naturally over a 24-hour period and peaks in the body hours just before you wake up. This is preparing the body for activity.

Morning sunlight (enriched with blue light) fuels that cortisol production which keeps the body energised and alert throughout the day. Sunlight also boosts the production of serotonin, which is literally the building block for melatonin. The more serotonin there is, the more melatonin we build up. Recall back that melatonin prepares the body for sleep.

Soak up those morning rays.

One of the first things your child should do in the morning is spend 5-20 minutes exposing their face to sunlight. Look in the direction of the sun so that the sunlight hits the face. Try and get 20 minutes, the longer the better.

Go outside for this, don’t do it behind windows as they filter UV light. Even on a cloudy day there is enough light to influence cortisol and serotonin production.

Just make sure your child isn’t falling asleep or closing their eyes during this time! There should be no glasses, sunglasses or contacts involved. The naked eye is vital to this process. It receives the sunlight which relays messages to the anterior pituitary gland to release the important hormones.

Optional – A recent university-developed therapy produce is green-blue light emitting glasses, Re-timer. The glasses are 100% UV-free and it is recommended to wear for 20-60 minutes in the morning. Especially useful for mornings where it is cloudy, dark or during winter where the sun does not appear until later in the morning. Not recommended for children under 13 years.

  1. Get sunlight exposure throughout the day

It is important not only to get the morning sunlight, but also to spend few minutes soaking it up throughout the day. Again, naked eye and skin will absorb the light much better. We understand the importance of skin protection however, given Australia’s rates of skin cancer. Use your common sense and use sunscreen and protective gear if your child is going to spend prolonged periods of time out in the sun.

  1. No caffeine

Unless your GP or other health professional has recommended caffeine, do not give your child caffeinated drinks. This includes energy drinks such as Mother, V, Red Bull, Mountain Dew. It is recommended that young children should not drink coffee or tea, however if your child is 13 or older, you can begin introducing tea and coffee so long as they are not taken after 3pm as this can disrupt the body clock and throw all your efforts out the window.

  1. No naps

If your child is very sleep or tired in the afternoon, they can take a 15-20 minute nap at most, however it is recommended not to do this too close to their bedtime as this will disrupt their sleep-wake cycle. Longer naps will throw off the body’s sleep-wake cycle and make it harder for the child to fall asleep at the appropriate time.

By following these tips, your child’s sleep will become more regular and you could start seeing improvements. However, consistency is key if you want to see improvements.

To find out more about what you can do help your child, get in contact with our Sleep Clinician, Carla. Sessions with her will include discussions about your current sleep problems, psychoeducation and sleep behavioural management.

Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.