• Maja & Zoe Schaedel

Sleep in lockdown: The impact on family sleep

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

We recently spoke to Innovating Minds about the topic of sleep and particularly the impact on sleep for families during the 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.

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Sleep in lockdown – what are the stressors?

Many families have reported to us the impact of a change in routine. Specifically sleep times have shifted later. A Sleep Council Survey recently confirmed that many children are going to bed much later, (approximately an hour on average.) 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 sometimes relaxing their usual boundaries around sleep, around the bed times, and what they would do when their children wake up during the night. For parents themselves, the impact of lockdown has meant that many have difficulties with their own sleep, 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?

Altered work timetables and working from home have meant that some parents have been more relaxed about getting up later. A shift in waking times often impacts on what happens at bedtime.

Lack of a usual school routine has led to a shift in sleep pattern for many kids. In addition there is an effect of the long summer days, where it is not uncommon for parents to take their kids for a walk in the evening, and many families have built a habit of having an evening meal together, a little later than before. In addition, where parents are struggling to fit in work around home schooling, many have been relying on screen time at the end of the day whilst work and tasks are finished off. All these changes can affect sleep patterns.

One of the factors that influences how we sleep is called “sleep dive.” We build this up while we are awake through the day, and it helps us to fall asleep at night. This is one of 2 key internal processes that control our sleep. The other is our circadian drive, which is our internal body clock, and regulated by light and melatonin production.

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, exercising 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 need to start to shift that routine, maybe your kids are starting to go back to school, maybe you are beginning to go back to work. We recommend that you 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.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.It's also important to speak to your kids and teenagers about the plan.

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 are also trying to fit your work around home schooling. And that is just really difficult for parents right now. Parents may 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.

By 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.

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