It’s getting close to that time of year when we get the announcement from my kid’s school about standardized testing. We are told that the children should get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast on the days of the test.
Really, just those couple days a year are important?
I know they are trying to be helpful but it makes me laugh that it’s only emphasized once a year. I work on teaching my kids they should try to get a good night’s sleep (and eat a healthy breakfast) all the time, not just before the school’s big test. No, not every night is perfect, but we do try to make good sleep habits the norm, not the exception.
Does Sleep Really Matter?
With our busy schedules, sleep often gets overlooked as an important factor to our mood, energy and health.
The quality and quantity of your sleep can have a significant effect on how you feel, as well as your overall health. When you are asleep, your body is doing most of its re-charging and recovering.
In addition, your liver, gallbladder and brain are doing important detoxing while you are asleep. Skimping on sleep affects your body’s ability to detox, which affects your energy, mood and overall health.
How Your Body Regulates Sleep
Your body has a natural daily sleep-wake cycle which involves hormones.
The two main hormones I’m going to focus on are cortisol and melatonin.
Cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone, should spike in the morning when it’s time to wake up. Your cortisol should be highest in the morning and then slowly decrease throughout the day. In the evening when your cortisol is at its lowest, melatonin should start to increase.
Melatonin, which is important for regulating your sleep-wake cycle, is increased by darkness and decreased by light. Your melatonin level remains elevated while you sleep and then decreases in the morning when cortisol rises, to wake you up. When you help your body regulate your melatonin and cortisol, you can start to sleep better at night and feel more awake during the day.
Here are some of my favorite sleep tips that can be used for the entire family.
1. Keep a Consistent Sleep/Wake Schedule
When my daughter was an infant, she was a terrible sleeper. I read all kinds of books and tried all kinds of things to help her sleep. One of the main things I kept reading about was keeping a consistent schedule and creating a routine. I didn’t realize it at the time how important that is for everyone, not just babies.
Going to bed around the same time each night and waking up around the same time in the morning, helps your body fall asleep easier and wake up more naturally.
As I mentioned above, the body has a sleep-wake cycle. So, if you are fairly consistent, the body will know when it’s time to sleep and when to be awake. I know it can be tempting to stay up late on the weekends because you can sleep in the next morning, but you will feel better if you stay consistent.
Along with the consistent bedtime, creating a consistent bedtime routine can help as well.
You may have heard about this for young kids such as giving them a bath, brushing their teeth, reading them a story and then lights out. The routine helps their body know it’s time to slow things down and fall asleep.
The same applies for older kids and adults. Reading a book, listening to calming music, taking a bath, relaxing breathing and writing in a journal are all things that can be part of your bedtime routine. Doing the same things every night before bed let the body know it’s time to go to sleep.
2. Limit Screen Time in the Evening
I realize this may be one of the hardest ones, but limiting screen time can be helpful for several reasons. If you are watching something suspenseful, exciting or scary it will have your body revved up, making it harder to fall asleep. Try to stop watching movies or shows at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed.
Also, the blue light from TV’s, computers, phones, etc. trick the body into thinking it is daytime. Remember how your body should start increasing melatonin production when it’s time for sleep. When you are exposed to the blue lights from devices, the body can think it’s day time and not produce as much melatonin. This can affect your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Giving up devices in the evening can be challenging.
There is a software you can install on your computer called f.lux which will adjust the colors on your screen to have less blue light. Another option is to wear blue light blocker glasses for an hour or two before bed.
I find wearing the blue blocker glasses in the evening is very soothing. Although my kids get embarrassed when they have a friend over and I’m wearing my glasses.
3. Dark at Night – Light During the Day
As I mentioned before, the body is on a sleep-wake cycle, light has a big impact on this cycle.
Melatonin will increase when it is dark and decrease when you are exposed to light. Exposing yourself to bright light during the day, especially around mid-day, is a great way to help reset your sleep-wake cycle.
If you have trouble waking up in the morning, try going outside to get some natural light exposure. This will help signal to your body it’s time to decrease melatonin production and increase cortisol, which will help you wake up.
If going outside is not an option, make sure your blinds and drapes are open. This can be a great way to get your kids up as well, open their shades in the morning and let the light naturally wake them up.
If you are in an area that doesn’t get a lot of natural light during the winter, there are indoor lights you can purchase to simulate that exposure.
Just as you want to be exposed to bright light during the day, you want to limit your exposure to bright lights in the evening.
This will signal to your body to increase melatonin. Don’t have every light in the house on in the evenings. If you have lights on dimmers, keep them turned down a bit. You can also use Himalayan salt lamps or candles as light in the evening. I found some low blue light electric candles that I use in the evenings and as a night light in the kid’s bathroom.
When you are sleeping you want the room as dark as possible.
Using blackout curtains can help keep extra light out. If your child needs a night light, look for one that is low blue light. If you or your child gets up in the middle of the middle of the night, try to keep the lights low so you don’t send the wrong signal to your body that it’s morning and time to wake up.
4. Turn off Wi-Fi and Cell Phones at Night
Sleeping with your cell phone on in your room can disrupt your sleep.
Even if you have the sound turned off, the signals from the phone or device can interfere with sleep without you even realizing it. If your child is old enough and is getting text messages or other alerts throughout the night, this is keeping their bodies from getting into a deep restful sleep.
You can make a family rule that night time is for charging devices. Make an area of the house like the kitchen, a place for charging devices, this will keep devices out of the bedrooms at night.
If you don’t have a house phone and are concerned about getting an emergency phone call in the middle of the night, leave your phone on but in the other room so you can still hear it but it won’t be as close to your body.
If you use your phone as your alarm clock, just put it in airplane mode when you go to bed.
Turning off your wi-fi at night will allow the entire house to get sleep better.
The signals from the wi-fi are stressful on the body. Some modems have a switch where you can turn off the wi-fi. If you don’t have a switch or you don’t want to have to remember, plug the modem into a timer set to go off at a certain time each night and back on in the morning.
5. Getting Exercise During the Day
Exercising or any sort of physical activity during the day can help you fall asleep better at night.
Do you notice your kids sleep better on days they have been really active? Same goes for adults, getting in some physical activity will help you sleep better as well. Although, exercise can increase your cortisol level, which will affect your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. So, don’t do intense exercise within a couple hours of bedtime.
Doing your exercise or physical activity outside is even better, weather permitting though. You will be out getting exposure to the natural daylight which is helping set your sleep-wake cycle.
Being out in nature can help reduce stress levels, which can help with sleep as well.
6. Minimize Stress Especially in the Evening
When you are under stress the body is focusing on trying to handle the stress versus relaxing and winding down for sleep. The body will be sending a signal to keep producing cortisol because you are under stress. It thinks it can’t sleep now because there is some sort of threat that needs to be taken care of.
By minimizing stress and helping the body to relax, it will be sending the signal that it’s okay to go to sleep.
While I realize you can’t just tell stress to go away in the evening and come back tomorrow, there are ways you can quiet your mind and body.
If your mind is racing with things you need to get done, make a list. Also, creating a schedule of when certain things need to get done the next day can help. This will help get it out of your mind so you can focus on other things, like sleep.
Another great way to de-stress in the evening is to think about something you are grateful for. This will switch your body into a rest and relax mode versus fight or flight. This is something that is great for kids as well. Ask them to tell you their favorite memory from the day and what they loved the most. This may even help you to find something to be grateful for.
Sometimes when we think the day was a total disaster, our kids can give us an entirely different perspective. On the flip side, if your child is having a terrible day and saying nothing went right, I’m sure you can find something about the day that they can be thankful for.
Some of the ways to reduce stress are great bedtime routines as well. Taking a bath, listening to calming music, journaling or doing relaxing breathing exercises are ways to quiet the body and mind for sleep.
What Will You Try First?
Don’t take your sleep (or lack of sleep) for granted. Once you implement the above strategies you can get your entire family sleeping better.
Better sleep will lead to better days. Don’t let this list overwhelm you thinking you must implement them all now. Do what you can and see what makes the biggest difference for your family.