What We’ve Learned about Sleep

Most parents coach their infants to consistent sleep patterns and take their high school graduates to college. Tween didn’t learn to sleep, so in middle school we took him to a major university to participate in research on teen sleep.

1 week old

Every child is different, right? Teen was a great sleeper from Week 1 (or maybe that was the C-section drugs?). Still, he played hard during the day and slept hard during the night.

At the other end of the sleep spectrum, Tween never slept well. His crib was in our room for the first year and we did this ridiculous crawling-on-the-floor-through-the-dark routine to get to our bathroom and/or bed; no matter, it never worked. This child popped up, alert as a bird at daybreak, to say hello?, love me!, hold me!, feed me! Entertain. Me. NOW!

As a little guy, his sleep-resistance efforts were kinda cute albeit occasionally maddening. Somewhere I have hilarious video footage of him at about 20 months, naked in his crib, bouncing and singing his ABCs. Rather than nap, he’d stripped the bed and tossed everything on the floor, then stripped himself and provided the music for his own happy baby dance party.

We thought Tween was just a light sleeper. During the day he wields a different energy than his brother, so needs less sleep at night. Right? In his mid-elementary years he finally spoke up: he felt constantly exhausted. Either he’d lie awake for hours before sleep descended, or he’d conk out only to wake up in the wee hours. Either way, he didn’t get consistent, sufficient sleep.

So when we received a card in the mail inviting participation in a sleep study for teens with sleep disorders he immediately said, YES! Maybe they can help me sleep…

Did you know that sleep coaching can be as effective as medication for developing better sleep? That’s what the researchers told us. It hasn’t entirely solved the problem; this will be his life-long issue. But it has helped, and we’re grateful. It’s also gone a long way towards demonstrating his parents’ love for him and care for his well-being.

What did we do?

The study involved, for Tween and for me, a series of phone and in-person interviews plus on-paper assessments before we could be admitted to the study, repeated periodically over the course of a year. Tween spent the night at the university a couple times. No, he did not wear electrodes all over his head. Instead, they took saliva and administered computer tests throughout the afternoon/evening, and again in the morning. For a week at a time, a few times, he had a daily phone interview with a researcher, and other weeks he wore a special watch that works much like a FitBit to record activity, light, and sleep.

Best of all, he met weekly for an hour with a sleep coach over seven weeks. We haven’t seen the official study results yet so we don’t truly know what the researchers discovered. We do know, however, what we learned from Tween’s sleep coach.

What did we learn?

For Tween, and for many of us who struggle with sleep, his thoughts proved a massive obstacle to sleep. Any of this sound familiar? Watching the clock. Pondering (trying not to ponder) thoughts from today or concerns about tomorrow. Expecting not to fall asleep. Worrying about when you might fall asleep. Trying to force sleep. Wondering why in the world is it so hard for me to sleep?

He has to calm his mind…

Get rid of the clock. We removed Tween’s digital alarm clock from his room. He now has to trust that, if his parents haven’t woken him, it is not time to be awake. This works for adults, too. Silence your smart phone, then set an alarm. Don’t look at it until it goes off.

Journal. An hour or so before bed, write down all the things you want to remember from today or brainstorm for tomorrow. Make notes so you free up brain space to begin to relax.

Gratitude. Reset your brain by focusing on the things for which you can be grateful. Recording three unique items for gratitude each day has also been shown to increase happiness.

Wind down. This was one of our biggest and best discoveries. For an hour before bed, turn off the screens. Turn down the lights (more mood lighting, less overheads). Instead of playing video games or watching TV, read a (kinda boring) book. Journal. Draw. Do a puzzle. Whatever it is that relaxes you, do that. Wind down can also include nightly rituals, like a bath/shower, a cup of herbal tea, a hand-and-foot massage, or diffusing essential oils. We know bedtime routines are essential for littles, yet we forget how truly relaxing those routines can be.

Restrict bed for sleep only. We read bedtime stories to our kids in bed. We send them to bed a few minutes early with a book. Except reading in bed trains our brains to go crazy in bed, whereas we want our brains to cue that bed means sleep. Set up a separate in-bedroom cozy nook for reading/wind down time.

Block light. Another key discovery: even the tiniest bit of light disturbs sleep, another reason to ban the digital clock. If you can’t get rid of all light sources, try a sleep mask. Tween occasionally pulls his out; I use mine every night, no fail. It’s annoying at first. You get used to it.

White noise. We are big believers in bedroom fans. The fan doesn’t have to point at the bed, and it doesn’t have to be on high. A little air movement and a little whirring will do the trick, even if you wear ear plugs–another plus for light sleepers.

Get up. If you’re not sleeping after what feels like a half-hour, get up; keep lights low (store a small flashlight or head lamp nearby) and do something quiet and relaxing. After what feels like another half-hour, go back to bed. Repeat until you can fall asleep.

Rise up! Don’t hit snooze in the morning, just get up. Wash your hands and face with cold water. Open the windows, head out the door, search out the sun. You can move your way into greater energy even when you want to collapse. Get going, and keep going, until wind down time.

There were other tips–limit caffeine; don’t nap; keep your bedtime and wake-up times consistent throughout the week–all common sense. Tweens and teens may need up to 11 hours of sleep per night; 9.5 hours is a reasonable goal, even when that feels completely unreasonable (homework and sports and whatever, oh my!).

Two key moments in our sleep research experience…

It is nearly impossible to estimate your own sleep quantity or quality. We are so accustomed to asking our loved ones, “How’d you sleep?” And we have no idea that there is no way they can accurately answer that question. People simply can’t tell–even as they stare down their clocks–how long it took them to fall asleep, or how long or deeply they slept. Unless you wear a smart gadget, and even those glitch.

Then the sleep coach said something to this effect: “All this only really matters because the world keeps moving on schedule. If you could just sleep in anytime to get the sleep you need, we wouldn’t need to try to regulate your overnight sleep.” Huh.

To that point, I am grateful that our society in general and our local schools particularly have begun to take seriously research on teen sleep. Through adolescence kids need to sleep more in the morning. Not all, but many (most?) do. It’s biology, and we should work with our bodies rather than against them.

For my part, I have begun getting ready for bed when Tween does. I make some herbal tea (I like Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime teas), wash my face, put on a headlamp, and read in the almost-dark until my eyes get heavy. I sleep better on those nights. School is stressful and homework loads vary, so Tween cannot be as consistent at this stage. Nevertheless, he has learned early some very important lessons.

On the drive to our first in-person interview I said, “This is kinda cool! I bet you’re the only middle schooler you know who gets to participate in research at a major university!”

To which he calmly responded: “Yah, but I’m also the only middle schooler I know who has insomnia…”

Someday he won’t be the only adult he knows with insomnia, but he might just be the best-rested insomnia-wrestling adult he knows!

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Tell the Truth

stress

A few nights ago, just as I realized I had an unforeseen free evening ahead of me, my neighbor popped over to spontaneously invite me to a panel on teen stress at a nearby high school. I said yes.

An hour later I fought back tears as a well-dressed dad pointed to a picture of his teenage son on the big screen, a good-looking kid who committed suicide three years ago. That tragedy spurred the dad and other parents to begin a Wellness Committee aimed at addressing stress among adolescents. Ultimately, they want to change culture – students, parents, schools, teachers, systems, and society – the perfect storm as we all play a role in the overwhelming stress our students experience.

For the Committee’s first public event, they began with stress, which may lead to depression, which may lead to dangerous behaviors and, worst case, suicide. The Committee will do important work, but it won’t matter a whit if the rest of us don’t jump on board.

Teen’s pediatrician happened to be one of the speakers. A wise, well-grounded man, he received several rounds of interruptive applause for speaking truth. Things like, why do final exams come after winter break? In other words, why can’t “break” be a true break, with no finals, no homework hanging over kids’ heads? How about reduced homework, or a later start time since older teens need more sleep?

Other good exhortations:
Just because our kids are older, we are NOT life consultants but more like President of the Board to our kids; they get more responsibility, yes, but we don’t take a hands-off advisory role. We still have levers to pull, and it’s our responsibility to pull them as necessary.

Eat dinner together as a family – friends, we can spare fifteen minutes to be face-to-face with one another!

According to a recent survey, high school students in our district get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. They need more (they should average 9.5 hours/night), so parents and kids can work together to make that change.

Though teens act a convincing part that they do not want to spend time with family, family fun time is important, one of the levers we employ to keep kids healthy. Take a vacation or even a day trip to do something together.

Help kids focus on who they are becoming more than what they are doing. Just like adults, their identity is not wrapped up in performance, in their GPA or home runs; their identity is Who They Are, at their core, when all their accomplishments have been stripped away – as they will be once they have to “start over” in college or the work force.

Technology addiction has become a huge issue, and it’s not healthy that our young people are “on stage” through social media 24/7. Most of us give in to the positive stimulus response, parents may be equally addicted, and we all need to unplug more regularly. Tough love, perhaps, but Teen’s pediatrician thinks cell phones should be off by 8pm, internet by 9pm, and kids in bed by 10pm (my Teen said, “Uh, yah…No Way.” Not sure I’ll pull that particular lever, but we are going to have another conversation about a healthy bedtime routine).

That recent survey revealed that as many as 46% of local high school kids have had or currently have depression, feeling unrelenting sadness for two weeks or more such that it interferes with their ability to perform daily tasks. Staggering! Maintaining the status quo may be easier, but it’s killing our kids. How can we ignore the truth that our kids are drowning while we stand by, cheering them on?

As adults, we have to model better behavior. We can’t mentor kids in stress-free living if we’re workaholics who don’t stop to enjoy life, if we don’t make time to listen to them. We have to talk about stress. We have to put our phones away and sit face-to-face with our kids and admit our own struggles, our own mistakes.

Life is hard. Parenting is hard, and parenting adolescents can be downright crazy-making. What’s the point in pretense when talking about it helps? Every family, geez, every human!, struggles in some way or other. Talk to your spouse, your kids, teachers and coaches, friends, and neighbors. Talk to anyone who will listen compassionately. Find your safe people if you don’t already know who they are. We’re in this thing together whether we like it or not, so we might as well get on the same team and admit our weaknesses so we can build on our strengths.

Glennon Melton of Momastery wrote, “I’ve never made a friend by bragging about my strengths, but I’ve made countless by sharing my weakness, my emptiness.” Fear and shame keep us from vulnerability, but vulnerability is exactly what we need to combat loneliness. We need one another. Tragedy strikes the one who feels unnecessary and can’t talk about it. Let’s all tell the truth so we can offer one another hope.

If you need someone to talk to and don’t know where to turn, the National Lifeline has trained counselors ready to listen anytime, day or night. It’s free and confidential. Please call: 800-273-TALK.

Day 30

What gives when your life goes wonky? (Personal follow-up: when is my life ever not wonky?)

A week after we returned from Costa Rica I heard about this great language-learning app, Duolingo. Determined to capitalize on two months of hearing and attempting to speak Spanish, I immediately installed the app on my phone and got to work. Just five minutes a day, easy-peasy! I could fit that in between appointments, while waiting for the kids, while transitioning from one task to another… And even though I loved it, I don’t think I made it a month. Exploded work-load, kid activities, volunteer requirements…despite my desire to live slow and simple, it didn’t take long for the cultural pull and expectations to become too much. I’ll get back to Duolingo, but I haven’t yet.

Exercise went next. I even scheduled Teen-pick up at the gym (conveniently, he can walk from school to the gym) so I could work out while he did and then we’d go home together. Nope, I stayed at work longer and Pick Up was just that: pick up.

Sleep, of course – how can I manage consistent healthy sleep with all this chatter bouncing around my brain?

Day 30 of the 30 Day Power Purge came and went with no fanfare. It could have been significant had it accurately represented 30 days of decluttering, but sadly, it didn’t. Week 1, Zone 1: The Kitchen – all good! Since I necessarily spend a certain amount of time each day in the kitchen preparing food for the fam, it took little extra effort to clean out a few drawers and what not. Each baby step made visible progress. It felt good! And then it didn’t as we moved on to other projects and even more cluttered closets. Forget five minutes, these projects would need at least a good hour if not more, time I didn’t have to give to stuff that could continue to sit.

The thought buzzed around my eyes: one more failed attempt? Beat it, bug! Hannah has great suggestions; I read every email, mostly “on break” from the over-work I brought home each day. I will get back to it, determined to live a simpler, less stuff-oriented existence; I will not consider this a “failure” but a “pause.” Hah, maybe I need a 30 Month Puny Purge instead!

And then last week. With all good intentions someone delivered a solid wallop to my gut. A project I’ve been so excited about, had taken on as my “cause,” well, let’s just say others haven’t been appreciative of my significant investment of time and effort.

After a good, long wallow, I began to realize that this might provide the adjustment of time and priorities I’ve needed. Certainly not the way I’d ever imagined it would happen, but I had prayed that God would make clear a different way.

Since then I’ve exercised five out of six days. I’ve started reading a new book. And I scheduled a chiropractic appointment that I’d been putting off for calmer times.

Last spring my chiropractor, in our first appointment, diagnosed an issue I’ve been dealing with for 20+ years, previously missed by every doctor I’ve seen including another chiro and two neurologists. But 20+ years of working issues into my body will take some time to work out again. Just being in the office, I breathed differently. The music, especially, caught my ears: not something I’d typically listen to, but in this environment, so right and so relaxing. Zen bliss.

Lying face down, electrodes tacked to my back delivering deep-delicious stimulation to my overwrought muscles, I had no option but to simply be. And then the music…a piano instrumental, familiar but new. I listened, questioned, and Oh My Good God, realized the song was the hymn we sang at our wedding: How Great Thou Art.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed. 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Yes, God is great. He created the glorious beauty we appreciated in Costa Rica and likewise He made the beautiful small California town to which we came home. He made me, He loves me, He saves me (sometimes He even saves me from myself!). No surprise to God the situation I’m in, not that He wants me to hurt but He does want me to seek shelter in His awesome arms. His power will be reflected in my weakness as I allow Him to rearrange the details of my life.

That night we took the kids to see The Book of Life. Set on The Day of the Dead, gods La Muerte and Xibalba place bets on three children: will Manolo or Joaquin eventually win Maria’s love? Beautifully rendered, the story tackles life’s great themes: life and death, war and peace, love and fear, heroism, artistry, and ultimately, writing your own life’s story. I think I may have audibly gasped as, in a critical scene, the voice-over declared that Manolo had finally faced and overcome his worst fear: not fighting the 1,000 bulls of his legendary bullfighting family, but his fear of becoming himself.

Sometimes being yourself is the scariest, hardest thing you can do. Others may not like you or appreciate the gifts you bring to the table. Hiding, pretending, can seem the better options. Being yourself can leave you vulnerable, raw, exposed – and real. How great is our God who stands with us for better and for worse; who loves us when others misunderstand us or, worse, reject us; who gave up glory and took on pain in order to be with us.

Life will keep on being wonky. I will continue to juggle requirements and desires. People will love me and hurt me. And God will be great, holding me tight as together we write the story of my life becoming me.