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  • Denise Scott

Sleep and Mental Health - Get Your Zzzzzzs!

Inadequate sleep is a pervasive problem for all ages, worse in those affected by mental health disorders. I cannot leave this topic out and will end the month with information on this vital lifestyle component.

Sleep is good for all ages and brains!


  • Chronic sleep problems affect 50-80% of those with mental health disorders and 10-20% of adults. They are common in all the mental health disorders I have written about this month.

  • The National Sleep Foundation estimates that about 30% of children and 75% of teens do not get enough sleep. Adequate sleep is critically important to children’s developing brains.

As seen with other mental health disorders, things worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sleep is critical in recharging our brains to function optimally. Sleep is vital to both our physical and mental health. Chronic sleep deprivation increases negative emotions and decreases positive emotions. This impacts our ability to deal with stress. Adequate sleep improves our attention, memory, and cognitive function. Inadequate sleep can increase the risk of mental health disorders.

Those with mental health disorders often experience sleep disorders, while sleep disorders exacerbate symptoms of mental health issues. Persistent sleep deprivation can increase the risk of mental health disorders in children and adolescents.

Interestingly, the DREAM study (Daily Rest, Eating, and Activity Monitoring) evaluated the effect of mild sleep deprivation in children, in which bedtimes were changed by just one hour. Differences were noted after only one week of just 30 minutes less sleep nightly. The following effects were observed:

  1. Children who slept less consumed more calories from poorer quality foods.

  2. Children with less sleep tended to be less active.

  3. Children were less able to cope in the school setting.

  4. Children overall had lower emotional well-being scores.

Consider for a moment when a toddler misses their nap. Parents know nap time is critical to how their toddler behaves for the rest of the day. Sleep deprivation can create or exacerbate multiple symptoms that include:

  • Moodiness

  • Sluggishness

  • Anxiousness

  • Impulsivity

  • Difficulty Concentrating

  • Inability to sit still

  • Increased feelings of depression

How much sleep do children need?

The amount differs by age, but the following guidelines have been recommended by the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Preschoolers 10-13 hours

School-age children 9-11 hours

Teenagers 8-10 hours

If your child sleeps far less than this, it is time to improve their sleep hygiene and environment. Most teenagers don’t get enough sleep for numerous reasons, including changes in their circadian rhythm and a shift to falling asleep later at night and wanting to sleep later in the morning. Adequate sleep is especially critical once they are driving.

Electronics and social media is a common cause of sleep deprivation in teens and a contributor to teen angst.

Changes won’t occur overnight, but consistency is the key, as is sticking to a game plan. The following suggestions can be helpful.

  1. Begin with a consistent schedule; the same bedtime and wake-up time daily, including weekends.

  2. Develop a consistent bedtime routine to help the mind and body wind down 30-60 minutes before bedtime.

  3. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.

  4. Avoid stimulating activities in the evening - exercise, exciting shows, stimulating games, etc.

  5. Dim the lights 30 minutes before bedtime - the brain doesn’t relax in a bright environment which interferes with melatonin production, the sleep hormone.

  6. UNPLUG FROM ALL ELECTRONICS! This is one of the primary sources of brain stimulation at night, especially for teens. Electronics, especially social media, also contribute to mental health problems in adolescents. Keep all these - TV, laptop, iPad, cell phone, gaming devices, etc. - out of your child’s bedroom. Some devices have a way to lock them after a specific time, but it is best not to have them at all in the sleep environment.

  7. Create a relaxing bedroom environment. This could entail lights that can be dimmed, soft background music or nature sounds, and a comfortable bed and pillow.

  8. Avoid naps for older children and teens.

  9. Encourage physical activity during the day, especially outside.

  10. Block out light if necessary with blackout curtains or a sleep mask.

  11. Consider earplugs if needed to block sounds.

  12. Keep a cooler temperature for sleeping to avoid overheating. 65-70 degrees is best.

  13. Try to restrict your child’s bed activity to sleep only.

Make changes gradually with a few steps at a time to allow transition for change. Occasionally, a sleep aid or supplement, such as melatonin, may be helpful for a week or so, but please discuss with your child’s doctor. None of these are intended long-term for children. Recently, melatonin gummies were found to contain hundreds of times more melatonin than what the label lists, and some of the products also contain CBD. This has led to numerous ER visits and hospitalizations in children. Supplements are never a first step.

Finally, some children are affected by sleep disorders that require further medical evaluation or a sleep study. If suspected, discuss it with your doctor to plan the next best step.

Sleep is healthy for all ages, especially for the brain and mental health!

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