The ABCs of catching your ZZZs…

Sleep is crucial for our physical and mental health. There are ways to ensure you sleep soundly every night

By Starr Cunningham

Since first becoming a parent more than 22 years ago, I stopped being a sound sleeper. I used to be able to snooze my way through a thunderstorm or a neighbour’s loud party music. Then all of a sudden that changed. I started waking up when my son rolled over too loudly in his crib or when my daughter got a case of the hiccups at 2 a.m.

I think most parents go through the same experience. It must be instinctual, but it can be difficult to overcome. And if you’re like me, the impact can be draining not just on your physical health, but your mental health, too.

My daughter, Lily, is 14 years old now. She often finds it difficult to both go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. She’s not alone. 

Dr. Alexa Bagnell says sleep is crucial for our overall function, thinking, health, and mental health. As the interim chief of IWK Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, she believes most of our children are sleep deprived. 

“Sleep is often one of the first things to go and one of the most important things to maintain,” Bagnell says.

Fortunately, sleep skills can be taught. Proper sleep hygiene is important for everyone, but even more so for our children.

It begins with a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Following the same bedtime steps each night can go a long way toward getting your youngster ready to sleep. A cool, dark, and quiet bedroom is also the key to sleeping success. 

Then there’s stimulus control, something that’s not as easy as it used to be for most parents. With phones, tablets and laptops so readily available, many youngsters now rely on screens to put them to sleep. 

“Many kids have screens in their room and they say I only use them until I’m tired and fall asleep,” Bagnell says. “Yet these very screens keep them up and disturb the natural sleep rhythms that we all need to develop for ourselves and are best to learn as kids!”

Regular physical exercise during the day, time spent outdoors, and limited snacks and drinks before bed can help children drift off as well.

So how much is enough? The answer might just surprise you.

Sleep experts say school-age children (between six to 12 years of age) should be getting nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. 

“It’s probably the most important thing parents have control over,” Bagnell says. “Our children can learn sleep skills and they can improve all health outcomes.”

It may sound simple, but we know self-care is vital to mental wellness. Proper nutrition, physical activity, socialization, and sleep are all crucial for our mental health. 

At the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia we work to change the way people think about many facets of mental illness, mental wellness, and addiction. We know the ability to sleep is an important indicator of overall health. In fact, sleep is one of the categories monitored by several mental health continuum models. A healthy person usually exhibits normal sleep patterns and has few difficulties falling asleep. An injured person will experience restless or disturbed sleep. And an ill person is often unable to fall or stay asleep. 

Of course, we will all encounter difficulties with our sleep at one time or another for a variety of reasons, but long-term sleep deprivation can be more troublesome than just causing a few mid-day yawns. 

“Sleep is so important and parents sometimes feel they can’t help,” says Dr. Bagnell, “but they can.” 

Now there’s something to sleep on.