In her latest column, Jewish News’ resident family GP, Dr Ellie Cannon, discusses her top tips to getting enough sleep..
I’M ALWAYS amazed in clinic by how much people underestimate the importance of sleep and the ill effects of poor sleep. Bad sleep can account for anxiety, poor mood, lack of concentration and even aches and pains. Ask any new parent how they feel and you’ll get a good description of that “bashed-over-the-head” feeling caused by poor sleep.
I’m seeing this issue more and more among young people; teenagers and students concerned they have a stress or mental health issue, when really sleep is too blame. More than 850,000 children are diagnosed with a mental health problem in the UK and the Jewish community is certainly not exempt. It is great we’re much more aware of psychological issues in teens, but we mustn’t ignore the role of sleep.
With newborns, we are very focused on their sleep routine and ensuring a good night’s sleep; parents of teens should be equally focused on this. I see quite a few teens with sleeping problems that cause physical symptoms – it’s well worth sorting out the issue before the concentration and mood effects really take hold. Concentrating on good sleep with a few simple measures can be really effective particularly, for example, with teen anxiety, and it is a far healthier approach than a sleeping tablet or other drugs.
Teenagers want to play hard and enjoy life, and early nights will certainly not be a priority over parties and sleepovers. But our teenagers need enough good quality sleep to function and perform well, otherwise they will quickly notice symptoms from sleep deprivation. It is worth looking for eight hours although, of course, this is an average – some will need a bit more and some will do well on a lot less.
Often, parents notice symptoms such as anxiety and poor mood and think something physical or mental may be going on. But before rushing to the doctor, it is worth actioning some good sleep measures. To create good quality sleep, you need to look at what we call “sleep hygiene”; this has nothing to do with cleanliness and everything to do with creating the right environment for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep hygiene is about setting up a good routine and atmosphere for sleep, so the body can make the most of the sleep it gets. The first thing to consider is what they do in the day; and, as with so many issues these days, exercise is key. Teens who exercise during the day will sleep better at night, not only because they are physically tired from exertion, but also because it relaxes and helps them calm down.
Sport often tails off as kids reach their teens, particularly in girls, but it is vital for healthy bodies and healthy sleep. Exercise doesn’t have to mean joining the gym: it can be walking to the bus stop, rather than being dropped off by mum (I’m guilty of this too!).
Next, think about your teen’s bedroom – a sleeping environment needs to be stress-free and calm, which may be hard if they are also studying in it.
All work paraphernalia should be as far as possible from the bed, especially computers and laptops, which subconsciously signal “work” in our minds.
Anyone who has had difficulty sleeping finds darkness is very important in order to fall and stay asleep, so all screens and devices should be turned off, with no LED lights visible. While not the coolest bed attire for a teen, an eye mask can be great to provide the darkness bodies often crave. It may also be the time to get out those blackout blinds again which were so useful for baby sleep, just to ensure a nice, dark room.
Remember how crucial the bath-milk-bed routine was when they were babies? Well, what a teen does before bed is also crucial to a decent sleep – and a bath or other relaxation, such as reading, is still a really good idea. Unwinding in the last hour or two before bed is really important to relax a stressed mind.
The worst activity before bed is staring at a phone. The lights from the screen are too stimulating, and the messages encourage the brain to wake up and stress out! Ideally, the phone should not be in the bedroom overnight – for adults and teens incidentally – as that is not conducive to relaxing: it should be off and left charging away from bedsides.
I know, I know: it seems crazy and impossible to suggest proper sleep and turning off the phone to a teenager – but it can be vital to avoid symptoms that can affect school results and mental health.