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.
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!