Sleep Well, Stay Well
By Malia Jacobson
When it comes to staying healthy, all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t make up for lost hours of sleep. Getting enough sleep supports a healthy immune system, while sleep deprivation handicaps your immune response, leaving you, or your night-owl children, more susceptible to viral illness.
During sleep, the body releases infection-fighting proteins called cytokines. During periods of sleep deprivation, infection-fighting cells are reduced. Chronic sleep loss can even make vaccines less effective, according to research. Here’s how to build a better bedtime and a stronger immune system, starting tonight.
Do the math. A healthy sleep routine starts with bedtime. According to sleep expert Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, late bedtimes cause many childhood sleep problems because overtiredness makes it harder for children to get to sleep and stay asleep. But figuring out when to put your child to bed isn’t easy.
To find your child’s bedtime, first determine how many hours of sleep they need in a 24-hour period. This will help you determine how many hours they can comfortably stay awake per day. For example, a one-year-old who needs 14 hours of sleep can stay awake for 10 hours per day. If he gets up at 6 a.m. and naps for 3 hours each day, he needs a standing 7 p.m. date with his bed. A teen who can stay awake for 16 hours and has to get up at 6 a.m. needs to fall asleep around 10 p.m.
Nix nightlights. You may love the way your child’s smile lights up a room, but when it comes to sleep, the best light is no light at all. Nighttime light disrupts melatonin production; even a small nightlight or the light from electronics or a baby monitor can be enough to prevent deep, restful sleep. Dim the house lights after dinner and install effective blackout blinds to get the bedroom truly dark.
Embrace boring. Sleep doctors agree that an effective bedtime routine is one that’s absolutely set in stone: the same things, in the same order, every night. “Our bodies love routine, and this is especially so with children and bedtime,” says Teitelbaum. Performing the same events in the same sequence before bed cues a child’s subconscious for sleep.
Shut down media mayhem. Bright lights, fast-paced activity, and over-stimulating content are bedtime don’ts. So television, which pours out light and stimulation just as kids should be winding down for sleep, has no place in a bedtime routine. Numerous studies have linked television-watching with poor sleep in children, yet it remains a common evening activity in millions of households with young kids. Shut off screens an hour before bedtime and use the time before bed for reading and other quiet activities instead.
Serve sleepy-time snacks. The best bedtime snacks contain sleep-inducing tryptophan along with complex carbohydrates to help tryptophan cast its sleepy spell. Nut butter on whole-grain toast, cheese on whole-grain crackers, and cereal with milk or soy milk are great, healthy options. Be sure to serve the snack an hour before bedtime—sleeping on a full stomach can contribute to poor sleep and nightmares.
Start sunny side up. For a better bedtime, start your child’s day off the bright way. Strong morning light helps set your child’s internal clock so they’ll fall asleep more easily come nightfall. Open their curtains to let the light shine in and serve breakfast in a sunny spot. A morning walk offers beneficial light exposure to help regulate your child’s circadian rhythm.
Avoid nap traps. Naps can help keep babies and toddlers from becoming overtired, and new research from Emory University shows that they help babies learn and retain new information. Tired teens and older children can benefit from short, 20-minute power naps. But napping all day is guaranteed to make your child nocturnal. To promote healthy naps while preserving nighttime sleep, babies and preschoolers should end afternoon naps four hours before bedtime. Older children who no longer take afternoon naps should limit catnaps to the morning hours.
Get moving. A body in motion is one that’s primed for sleep, because exercise helps children fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Aim for at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous activity. Babies need lots of time on their tummies and backs to roll, wiggle, and work their muscles, while toddlers and older children can run, jump, climb, and stretch their way to sounder sleep.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published sleep and health journalist and hosts the Sleep Well Stay Well podcast.