How to Maintain Healthy Sleep (and why sleep is critical to overall wellness)
While we’re experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, getting good quality sleep is more important than ever.
That’s because sleep is critical for a healthy immune system.
When we're sleeping, our body releases immune-enhancing components such as cytokines, white blood cells, T-cells and antibodies. That's why when you're sick, you're so tired -- your body wants to sleep so the immune system can get to work!
We know that healthy sleep leads to a healthy immune system. There's research to back it. One study in adults found that adults that slept less than 7 hours per night were three times (3x) more likely to catch a cold.
Also, vaccines are less effective in sleep-deprived individuals. This study shows that vaccines were 11 times less effective in adults that slept less than 6 hours per night.
Now that we've established that we need to make sure we're getting enough sleep, let's talk about ways to ensure that your children are still getting enough sleep, despite our world being turned upside down.
I am hearing from a ton of families, whose kids never had sleep issues before, that they're now struggling. And I think we can trace it back to 3 things:
1) We're off schedule.
It's really important to try to maintain a consistent schedule. With school being canceled and people working from home, it can be easy to let the schedule slide. You don’t want to do that if you can help it because our bodies have an internal body clock that regulates our sleep and regulates the hormones that drive our sleep. So, if we're letting our child fall asleep and wake-up at different times each day, then their body clocks are going to be consistently shifting, and they are going to feel constantly jet-lagged. It's best to put them down to bed within a half hour range every night and make sure they're waking up within a half-hour range every day. That way their body clocks are in a good rhythm.
2) We're not getting enough exercise.
Exercise is hard to come by these days when we're on lockdown. Activities are canceled, gyms are closed, parks are closed -- so you have to get creative. Exercise is essential for healthy sleep. Our kiddos need to release their energy during the day so that they can relax at night. It's estimated that back in the hunter and gatherer days, humans walked 15 miles per day searching for food. As you can imagine, our kids sitting at home on their iPads is definitely not helping them fulfill that exercise quota. So you have to get creative. I know that sounds daunting, but you can do it! There are a ton of websites that are designed to get kids moving, like Cosmic Kids, GoNoddle, also you can head over to Pinterest and find a TON of resources and ideas on ways to be creative and get your kids moving. This isn't just limited to toddlers and big kids — even babies need exercise! So, be sure that your baby's getting plenty of tummy time, mat time, and isn't spending a lot of time in devices such as a swing or bouncy seat that aren't allowing their muscles to get to work.
3) Limited sunlight exposure.
Our bodies need to be exposed to light during the day (especially in the morning and midday) so that they produce cortisol (the alert hormone). If our kiddos aren't getting enough light exposure, and a nice cortisol spike earlier in the day, it's going to be harder for their cortisol levels to rebound and lower before bedtime. It is important that their cortisol levels are low at bedtime so that melatonin (the sleepy hormone) can take over which will allow them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sunlight also triggers our bodies to produce serotonin which converts to melatonin.
As you can imagine, being cooped-up indoors without light exposure may cause sleep troubles.
I know it's hard to get outside with social distancing but try your best to get outside. If that's not possible, then put your child by a window or go into a bathroom and turn on all the lights on the brightest level. You can feed your baby by a window; you can play a game with your toddler by a window; give your toddler a bath during the day (they LOVE baths!) — and that should help with their body clock.
While we're on the topic of light, it's really important that we turn those screens off 2 hours before bedtime. I know we're all on our screens much more with the shelter-in-place orders. I get it — I am too! But it's important that those screens are turned off between 1-2 hours before bedtime. The reason why is because the blue and green light from the screens is misinterpreted by our bodies as being sunlight. And so, instead of suppressing cortisol before bedtime, our body's going to produce it. As I mentioned above, we want those cortisol levels to be lower before bedtime so that the melatonin can take over and our kiddos can fall asleep — and stay asleep — with ease.
I hope that these tips help you to maintain healthy sleep for the entire family. Sleep is key to a healthy immune system, so do whatever you can to ensure your children get the sleep they need.
Certified Pediatric and Adult Sleep Consultant
Kelly resides in Chicago with her husband, two children under six years old, and a fur baby. She specializes in helping sleep-deprived humans — worldwide, ages 0 to 100, obtain the restful sleep they so desperately need through holistic, customized sleep programs and support. To learn more or book a free 15-minute Sleep Evaluation, visit kellymurraysleep.com.