Sleep in lockdown: The impact on family sleep
Updated: Jun 22
Sleep problems are very common. One in three people suffer from insomnia. The NHS does not always manage these sleep problems well because resources are limited, and where specialist services exist, there is often long waiting times for them. We believe that poor sleep can have a huge impact on people's lives and their health.
I have seen this first-hand with patients in my GP surgery and menopause clinics. There are effective and safe treatments for insomnia that just are not available across most of the NHS. This experience has led us to establish The Good Sleep Clinic. I work alongside Maja Schaedel, a clinical psychologist who leads the Sleep Disorder Service at a Sussex based NHS Trust. We combine our expertise to treat the medical, physiological and psychological aspect of insomnia.
We recently spoke to Innovating Minds about the topic of sleep and particularly the impact on sleep for families during this Covid 19 pandemic. Here is a summary of what we talked about, and some ideas to help re-set your family’s sleep if it has changed over lock-down. Sign up to our mailing list to receive the video webinar recording.
Sleep in lockdown – what are the stressors?
Many families have reported to us the impact of a change in routine. This, in particular has shifted their sleep times later. There was a recent survey organised by the Sleep Council where they asked questions of 3000 parents and over 70 percent of them said that their children under 16 will go into bed much later, by approximately an hour. Some parents have noticed increased difficulties getting their children to sleep at night, even at a later bedtime there' have been more disruptions, arguments and more waking through the night.
Parents are reporting that they are sometimes relaxing their usual boundaries around sleep, around the bed times, and what they would do when their children wakes up during the night. For parents themselves, the impact of lockdown has meant that more than half report difficulties with their own sleep, in particular, waking more frequently during the night. We know that getting enough sleep in the medium to long term is so important for children's development and has a host of health benefits. It is important for physical development and for cognitive and academic performance. Good sleep is often linked to improved memory, improved exam results and improved mental health. Poor sleep increases the risk of anxiety and depression across all ages.
Why is there a shift in sleep pattern during lockdown?
This is partly due to the fact the parents may not need to go to work and may not need to factor in a commute at the moment. Often people have been working from home and parents have been a bit more relaxed about getting up later. So families have been shifting waking times later. And what happens is when you when you shift your waking up time, it does inevitably have an impact on your bedtime.
And for kids they have not been needing to leave for school at the same time, and this has all had an impact in terms of a shifting sleep pattern. In addition in the summer time, so we've got lots of daylight that goes right on into the evening. It is not uncommon for parents to take their kids for a walk in the evening, maybe to have a later meal time and where they're all having it together and then going to bed later.
And in addition to that, if you are somebody who has struggled to fit in work around home schooling, you may have been finding that towards the end of the day, you are relying on screen to distract the children while you get other things done.
Something that can really impact on how we sleep at night is something called “sleep dive” that we build up through the day, and helps us to fall asleep at night. Sleep is controlled by two parallel processes. One is our circadian drive, which is our internal body clock, and regulated by light and melatonin production. The second is this concept of “sleep drive” or “sleep pressure.” This starts to build up the moment you wake up,and is a what triggers sleep at night.
How can we help our ‘sleep drive’?
What really helps to build up our sleep drive is to have lots of cognitive and physical stimulation; using our brains, learning, working, exercise and moving around. If that is sufficient, by the time we go to bed, we should be in a position where we can then go to sleep and sleep through the whole night. That is the goal.
And of course, we know what happens if we wake up late the next day; we haven't got enough time to build up the same amount of sleep pressure. When you come to go to bed the next night, you are not as tired and find it harder to fall asleep. It is important to think how shifting our sleep patterns can impact on that. Sleep drive does not only help us to fall asleep naturally, but also to sleep really well throughout the night.
When you are trying to change an unhelpful routine, the best approach is to start to focus on the mornings. If you are a family that have been going to bed later and getting up later and you realize that lockdown is changing, maybe your kids are starting to go back to school, maybe you are beginning to go back to work and you're wanting to shift your bed time back and wake up time.
We recommend that you can plan gradual shifts in sleep timing for a week or two. Every night and every morning, you just scale back by 15 minutes the time that you are waking up and going to bed. It makes it much easier to do if you do it over a period of time.
It's also important to speak to your kids and teenagers about the plan. In terms of increasing the physical activity, we know that it's really important to get them moving in the day so they're tired by bedtime. If they are not having as much exercise in the day, the more exercising, the more cognitive load in the day will help them sleep at night.
Common bedtime problems
Anxiety often surfaces in the evening, when things slow down and distractions dissipate. What we are finding is that, although you might be spending more time with your kids, parents tell us it is really not quality time. It can feel quite stressful. You might be struggling to do their home schooling and that might be causing battles.It might be that you also trying to fit your work around home schooling. And that is just a really difficult for parents right now. Parents may be feel a lack of confidence in being able to use their usual boundaries back here because they are worried about their children’s mental health and anxiety levels. So what do we do about this?
Agree a bedtime routine as a family
Earlier on in the day, it's really good to put some time aside where you talk to your children and you agree to look at this problem. Use open wording such as…
It is really good to get your child to collaborate with you on this. Get them to come up with some ideas. ‘Why don't you like reading just before bed?’ It feels a bit like school. ‘What would you like to do instead to relax before bedtime?’ I like drawing”. “Okay. If it's not too stimulating, that's fine.” “Do some drawing. That's a really nice way of relaxing.” So ask them to come up with ways that they want to relax.
Let children feel they have some ownership over it and then make a plan. “We're going to try this for a week. And if you stick to it, there'll be a reward.” And of course, rewards can work well with kids and teenagers. It maybe that you need to give your child space to write down or to think with you about any worries that they're having and separate this from bedtime – try to broach this earlier in the day.
My managing working together with your children, addressing worries earlier in the day and gradually shifting routines we hope you will be able to achieve an easing of sleep disturbances as lockdown also eases.