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Healthy Sleep Habits For Children and Teens

Host: Dr. Tara Egan

Co-host: Anna, teen daughter

Guest Expert: Dr. Kristin Daley, Licensed Psychologist, Diplomat of Behavior Sleep Medicine

On podcast episode 13 of “One Day You’ll Thank Me,” we welcomed a fantastic guest, her name is Dr. Kristin Daley and she is a clinician at Base Cognitive Behavioral Therapy & Consultation in Charlotte, NC. She has a PHD in Clinical Health Psychology, and is a Specialist in Behavioral Sleep. She is the go to person for myself and my colleagues when we have a client that is really struggling with sleep, and seeing consequences, such as doing poorly in school or behavioral issues.

Dr. Daley is here today to discuss with us how to instill healthy sleep habits in our children and teens. We started out talking to Kristin about what healthy sleep looks like and why it is so important.

We are told that sleep is not a one size fits all, we all have a different metabolism for sleep. Some have an amazing predisposition for sleep and are amazing sleepers and some are not. But that doesn’t mean it's not adaptable. There are a lot of ways that we can change that predisposition. She uses the analogy of people who can consume a ton of sugar and it never affects their waistline and how others need to work at it and change their eating patterns. What is important about all of this is to understand your unique metabolism for sleep.

Sleep is vitally important for our bodies. We need sleep to repair tissue, the redistribution of neurotransmitters that are active during the day, allow the brain to get caught up in brain health, and immune system activity. If you disrupt someone's sleep, they are more vulnerable to get an infection than someone that got a full night's sleep. It is vital to our functioning. It is critical for our bodies to have the right amount of sleep.

The more you think, worry, and try to control not sleeping, the worse it becomes.

With parents and kids, it can be a huge source of battle. If a kid is really struggling with sleep it's not just something they can just force themselves to do, sometimes they need some support. The earlier you intervene in sleep, the better off the child is. Our pattern of sleep follows us over time. Babies that struggle with sleep continuity turn into kids that struggle and then it goes into adolescence. The goal is creating a pattern that is really going to work for them early on.

In my practice the kids that I work with, sleep has such a huge effect on behaviors, coping skills, the ability to transition, and irritability. Dr. Daley says that is because a really fatigued kid is not a sleepy kid, they are a hyperactive kid. If you have a kid that is falling asleep on the school bus or in low stimulation environments, that is a major alarm and signals that he is incredibly sleep deprived.

For teens things look a little different. Puberty is when we see a conversion to more towards adult symptoms of sleep deprivation. As they move through puberty they become night owls. They stay up late and sleep until noon the next day, this is a natural tendency for their brain development.

With school start times, this creates some dilemmas. They would actually do better if start times were older for teens. A tip for parents is to open the blinds at night, so when they wake up the light is coming in and helping them wake them up instead of having a cave for a room. They may not like it, but will admit that it works.

Teens also can struggle with having their brains turn off totally at night and be completely unconscious. This can cause them to start having anxiety about all kinds of things or even things that happened years ago. Our brain may look for all kinds of ways to make you stay awake and alert. What they have to do is learn to disconnect from those neural pathways.

What can parents do to set the stage for success for their kids at really young ages?

For new parents, there are a couple of things that I suggest doing to protect the overall pattern of sleep:

- The more you can disconnect sleep from eating or drinking the better. Do not nurse to help them go to sleep or use food or milk as a method of going to sleep. You do not want them to have an association that they need it to go to sleep, it actually disrupts their clock system. Our sleep pattern is actually driven by having periods of sustained fasting from food. What is ideal is to sustain from eating two hours before bed and then having a great breakfast after awakening to reinforce our clock system.

-Have children adapted to sleeping in the dark. It is supercritical that it is as close to absolutely dark as possible. This affects their retinal sensitivity receptors which are incredibly light sensitive and will help them fall and stay asleep. Absolute darkness reinforces our normal pattern of deep sleep.

There was a study done about sleep behavior in children and they found that the more access to devices in their room, the more likely to have disruptive sleep and focus during the day. A huge rule to implement at night is not to let devices in the bedroom and it’s best to model the behavior yourself as the parent. Light sensitivity can be a very big deal for some people and not so much for others. It is a good rule of thumb though and definitely helps with reinforcing deep sleep behaviors.

Does co-sleeping affect sleep behaviors in kids?

There is a lot of drive for moms to have baby right next to them for soothing, shorter awakenings and breastfeeding, but it inhibits the child being able to learn to sleep without interacting with them. They become dependent on sleeping with another person and are not able to self regulate. The oldest child that was still co-sleeping with their parent Dr. Daley had seen was 14 years old.

For those children a little older, they also receive the message that they can’t sleep on their own, it is not safe and it is a big deal if they are not able to fall asleep right away. It's not that as a parent you are going to take away their feelings of being a little scared or lonely, but you are reinforcing that even though they feel that way, it is still going to be ok. The same goes for a fear of monsters. Instead of going around looking for them and making sure they are not there or spraying with “monster spray”, it is much more effective to tell them there is no such thing as a monster. We want to do that instead of validating the idea that the monster can be there and increase that anxiety in our kids.

As a parent what might be helpful to consider is what you can do to bolster your own tolerance and soothe yourself if they are struggling with not sleeping or wanting to get in bed with you to give your child an opportunity to self soothe.

How do we support our kids to internalize and prioritize sleep themselves?

-Understand that sometimes our older kids will have sleep deprivation and they are ok with it. Know that they are resilient. They will be ok. It is not helpful to create a massive tug of war.

-Have consistency in their wake up times. Marathon sleeping on the weekend throws off their circadian system. Then Monday is a struggle for them trying to get up. You want to try and get them up around their normal wake up time on the weekends. They can go back to sleep later if they want, but it is important to wake up as close to the normal time as possible.

-Do not cancel things because they have not gotten their sleep. The more they have to function in the day time, the more apt they will be to regulate their sleep on their own.

-Some families may need to shut the wifi off at a certain time of night.

I often tell parents that they need a short-term and long-term plan. The short-term is how are we going to get through this stressful moment and then what are you going to do to set the stage for the long term?

What are signs to look for to know if you need extra support around sleep behaviors in your kids?

Hyperactivity during the day can be a sign that they may not be receiving enough sleep. If you have to put a lot of effort into getting them to sleep at night or they have a lot of fear to go to bed, not sleeping through the night, and waking up and needing support... that is a big red flag. A book that Dr. Daley highly recommends is by Jody A. Mindell called Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Edition: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep

For professional support you would want to contact a psychiatrist or Behavioral Sleep Specialist.

To learn more about Dr. Kristin Daley's Services, visit her website,

Check out her podcast, "The Curious Mother."

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1 Comment

Great article. My son hates when I wake him on the weekends but it really has helped to keep him on a regular wake up schedule.

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