It's September, and things seem to be calming down after the annual back-to-school challenge of getting our kids' (and our own) sleep routines back on track. With three teenagers of my own, I can certainly relate to this recurring sleep challenge, as they struggle to shift from their late nights and lazier days of summer to more demanding earlier-to-bed, early-to-rise school schedules.
At the same time, I can't help but wonder why, exactly, it is that we repeatedly let our families' sleep routines get off track in the first place. Given all that is now known about the importance of sleep, it occurs to me that we have a fundamental sleep problem on our hands that doesn't just apply to our teens, and isn't just limited to this time of year. In fact, the CDC now considers insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.
What I believe we all need to do to fight this epidemic is commit to taking sleep more seriously throughout the year. As I was thinking about just what this task would involved, it occurred to me that the following principles, strategies and lessons learned from years spent helping weary parents solve their children's sleep problems, conveniently apply just as well to adults.
The first is to treat sleep as a learned experience. As much as we'd like to think of sleep as natural, and the ability to do it well as an inborn skill, the fact of the matter is that many healthy sleep habits are learned. Which means that they often need to be encouraged, taught, and reinforced -- often on an ongoing basis. Fortunately, parenting strategies such as creating a sleep-conducive environment (think dim the lights, read a book, quiet music), getting rid of distractions (yes, TVs, iPhones, and all other digital distractions, this means you), and establishing a regular bedtime routine apply equally well for adults. We just need to commit to applying them.
We also need to re-prioritize. Sleep is more important than it is often given credit for. New parents tend to be the ones who clearly recognize this. Inevitably faced with the sleep-deprivation associated with having a new baby, it usually doesn't take long for them to quickly learn to appreciate and prioritize sleep above all else. The challenge, however, is to keep sleep high on our priority lists as we, and our children get older and busier. We now know more convincingly than ever that sleep isn't just the absence of being awake. Rather, a whole lot goes on during sleep that does both your body and your brain good . With that in mind, now ask yourself, "Are you adequately prioritizing your sleep?"
Committing to better sleep also means going with the flow... or in the case of sleep, with your body's biorhythms. Biorhythms serve as an internal clock that significantly impacts your overall ability to both sleep and function well. Whether we're talking about toddlers, teens, or adults, biorhythms are hard to fight or overcome. Rather than trying to fight it, going with the flow means we need to do a better job of getting sleep when our bodies tell us we're tired, commit (and stick to) more regular sleep routines, and learn to accept that we can't let ourselves run low on sleep and expect to just stock up on it later. Neither sleep or our internal clocks work that way.
And finally, sleep by example. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that "do as I say, not as I do" doesn't work very well in any circumstance -- sleep routines included. Back-to-school time admittedly offers people like me the opportunity to focus much-needed attention on children's sleep habits and the important role that sleep plays on the ability to think, study, and function. But the fact of the matter is that it's difficult to effectively convey this sleep message at any time of year when we, as adults, don't have such great sleep habits ourselves.
So as you sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and appreciate the fact that we've made it through yet another back-to-school sleep transition, remember that you've got the rest of the year ahead of you, and you can be sure that your children will be watching you... that is, unless they're too busy, sleep-deprived, or watching TV in their bedrooms!