How Behavioral Health Symptoms May Be Impacting Your Child’s Sleep

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Health Tip of the Week

Child sleeping Even though adults can typically get by on seven to eight hours of sleep, most children need at least nine to 10 hours, depending on their age, for proper growth and development. In fact, sleep is closely linked to a child’s overall well-being. Just like proper nutrition and exercise, sleep plays a critical role in physical and behavioral health. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children and teens experienced increased behavioral health problems, which experts at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) say may correspond with increasing sleep difficulties among youth.

The link between sleep and behavioral health

Ariel A. Williamson, PhD, DBSM, a psychologist in the Sleep Center and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at CHOP, suggests that poor or insufficient (not enough) sleep is linked to child emotional and behavioral health concerns, such as low mood, anxiety, irritability and inattention. Insomnia symptoms, like difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, can also impact a child’s behavioral health. View this video to hear Dr. Williamson share more about the impact of poor sleep.

These symptoms may be red flags that your child isn’t getting enough sleep:

  • Poor mood or irritability
  • Difficulty controlling impulses
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Reduced interest in learning
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Falling asleep in class or in the afternoon (if over age 5)

It’s not always easy to make sure your child or teen is getting enough sleep. However, it’s particularly challenging during a stressful time, such as school milestones and transitions or when coping with behavioral health symptoms. In fact, studies show that while increased stress, anxiety and mood concerns can make it difficult to fall asleep, a lack of sleep only makes those symptoms worse. This is a hard cycle to break, making it extremely important for parents to encourage and model healthy sleep habits at home.

Practicing healthy sleep habits

Dr. Williamson offers the following age-appropriate tips to help foster healthy sleep in your child.

Ages 0-5

For children under 5, a consistent bedtime routine is important for getting enough high-quality sleep. Your child’s bedtime routine might include a bath, choosing their pajamas, and reading a book, singing a song, or talking about their day. Avoid having electronics on at bedtime or overnight. Choose a routine that works for your family and stick to it as much as you can. When it comes to healthy sleep habits, consistency is key. Studies have shown that the more often a young child follows the same bedtime routine, the better their sleep is. For more advice about healthy sleep in kids under 3, watch this video from Dr. Williamson.

Ages 6-12

While your school-aged child may be using electronics more often to socialize with friends, make sure to limit screen time before bed. At this age, kids may start to worry at bedtime about daily stressors in their own lives, such as negative interactions with peers and teachers, as well as about stressful events on a national or global scale. If possible, consider reducing your conversations about stressful events in front of your child, especially in the evening. Offer opportunities for your child to share their worries, but make sure these conversations don’t happen right before bedtime.

Try to help your child develop “coping thoughts,” or positive things they can remind themselves about when they get worried. Some examples: “I can’t control what friends do, but I can control what I do,” or “Worry time is over, now it’s time for sleep.” Relaxation techniques, such as deep belly breathing or muscle relaxation, can also reduce bedtime anxiety and support sleep.

Ages 13-25

Most teenagers and young adults don’t get enough sleep, but healthy sleep is especially important for addressing mood disturbances caused by feelings of social isolation or extreme loneliness — feelings that many teens have struggled with during and after the pandemic. Even when the school routine is altered, such as during vacations or other days off, it’s important to keep a similar sleep schedule — even on the weekends! This means making sure your teen isn’t staying up hours later on weekend nights or sleeping too late into the day on weekend mornings.

According to Dr. Williamson, this consistency can help keep the body’s internal clock “on time,” which can make it easier to naturally fall (and stay) asleep. Try to set an earlier bedtime for your teen and encourage a break from social media at night, especially while in bed and as your teen is falling asleep. Mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, and developing coping thoughts (see above), can also help reduce stress at bedtime.

People of all ages can promote healthy sleep by limiting (or avoiding) caffeinated beverages and making sure to not spend too much time working or using electronics in bed.

Make sleep a priority

The impact of healthy sleep extends beyond your morning energy level: For kids and adults, consistent, healthy sleep can help prevent worsening behavioral health symptoms. Research shows that prioritizing sleep during this time can improve your mood, support your behavioral health, and even boost your immune system. So, get some sleep: Your body — and your mind — will thank you!

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