In June 2020 I wrote a blog post about sleep problems in children. I wanted to write an article that focused more on sleep problems in teenagers and pre-teens, as I know there is a need for advice and support in this area.
To Resolve Sleep Problems in Teenagers and Pre-Teens You Need to Think About Their Whole Day
Did you know that what happens throughout the day can affect your child’s chances of getting to sleep easily?
Let’s start with the beginning of the day and work our way through.
The Beginning of the Day
The body’s circadian rhythm is a twenty-four hour cycle, synced with a “master clock” in the brain. This master clock is found in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
In the morning, exposure to light causes the master clock to release chemicals such as cortisol, which cause alertness. Darkness in the evening stimulates the release of melatonin, which tips the body into sleep.
The circadian rhythm can be very easily disrupted in our modern lives, because we have less exposure to the natural environment. Exposure to artificial lights and highly stimulating environments can confuse the brain.
Other organs in our bodies also have circadian clocks. These may be regulated by other things. For example, the circadian clock in the liver is regulated by food intake (more on that below).
We need to give the body very clear signals about day and night, by doing the following:
- Ensure your child wakes up at the same time every day and goes to bed at roughly the same time.
- Upon waking, open curtains or blinds straight away to allow natural light in. Get your child outside if possible. If it’s not possible, ensure they are sitting by a window. This will be east or south east facing ideally, to obtain the full effect of the early morning sun! Consider using a “light therapy” desk lamp in Winter mornings or on days when sunlight is in short supply.
- Ensure your child eats breakfast soon after waking, to raise blood sugar and help the brain differentiate between day and night. By eating food in the morning, the circadian clock in the liver is stimulated, which tells your body that it’s daytime. Ensure your child’s breakfast contains protein (eg peanut butter on toast, porridge with a sprinkle of ground almonds) for slow-release energy, and try to provide slow-release energy foods during the day, as this will help establish the circadian rhythm.
During the day
Plenty of movement is crucial, but the timing is important too. Moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep your child gets. This is the deep, rejuvenating type of sleep. However, it’s important that your child doesn’t do intense exercise late in the evenings. Endorphins produced by aerobic exercise can disrupt sleep. Aerobic exercise also raises the body’s core temperature, which signals to the body that it is time to wake up, not sleep.
Outdoor Time (No Matter What)
Try to find ways to get your child outside, no matter how bad the weather is. Sometimes I will negotiate a deal with my children, such as: “If you spend 20 minutes outside in the garden with the dog, you can watch a movie tonight”! Being outside has so many health benefits. Simply put, getting outdoors and exposing ourselves to sunlight helps to reset our circadian rhythm and restore a natural sleeping pattern.
The Bedroom is For Sleep Only
It’s important that your child’s brain connects the bedroom only with sleep and relaxation. So if possible, home-schooling or homework should be done in another part of the house. Electronic devices should not be used in the bedroom. I know this may be hard to hear. It may feel like an impossible area to change but your child’s sleep – and therefore their well-being – is at stake. Even if devices are switched off, they can emit light and sound on standby, which can be overstimulating and can disrupt sleep.
If it’s not possible for your child to have a desk for studying in a different part of the house, do your best to section off a part of the room so that there is a clear, calming space around the bed, which gives off the correct signals for sleep.
Process Worries and Deep Thoughts Long Before Bedtime
Find time to talk through worries and deep thoughts during the day (or encourage journaling during the day) so that they can be processed by the brain before bedtime and they won’t pop up when your child is trying to sleep.
In The Evening
Don’t eat dinner too late. Research shows that both skipping breakfast and eating later in the day can delay blood sugar rhythms for more than 5 hours. Because of this, the peripheral circadian clocks become desynchronised from the main circadian clock in the brain.
A small snack just before bed can stimulate the release of melatonin. Only certain types of snacks apply. Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan are helpful because tryptophan can be converted into serotonin, and then into melatonin. A complex carbohydrate-filled snack such as a small bowl of healthy cereal is perfect. This article provides a few more options.
Avoid caffeine at night time (eg hot chocolate or tea).
Quiet the Senses and the Mind
Work on calming each one of the senses, in the run-up to bedtime. Help your child to try out different strategies. For example, your child could turn down the volume of the TV or music, create calming aromas using a diffuser, and cuddle up in a soft blanket. These provide helpful sleep cues for the brain, which soothe the nervous system and stimulate the release of melatonin.
Experiment with different forms of meditation to quiet the mind. Often bedtime is a breeding ground for worries and deep thoughts because it is quiet and dark. There are multiple apps which have free access at the basic level, but sometimes keeping it simple is the best way. One idea is to set a timer for ten minutes, light a candle, and sit with your child, just focusing on the candle and nothing else. If thoughts wander, gently bring the attention back to the flickering flame of the candle.
Ensure your child stops using electronic devices a minimum of one hour before bedtime. The blue light and constant stimulation will work against your child’s circadian rhythm otherwise.
Reading can be very calming but pay attention to the type of reading material. Anything too exciting will produce cortisol (increasing alertness), so adventure stories or thrillers are not ideal.
Sleep Problems in Teenagers and Pre-Teens: Summary
I hope you have found this guide helpful. Nearly all the strategies can be implemented easily and quickly. However, don’t try to do too much at once. I have produced a helpful tracker which you can download here, and get started straight away.
If your child doesn’t respond to these strategies visit your GP. Your GP may explore possible medical causes, or refer your child to a sleep clinic for a thorough assessment.
You can also follow me (Dr Lucy Russell, founder of They Are The Future)here: