Good sleep is fundamental to good mental health, just as good mental health is vital to good sleep. A good night’s sleep is about getting to sleep, staying asleep and getting enough good-quality, deep sleep.Increasingly, studies show that the pattern and quality of our sleep is not only closely linked with our mental health and wellbeing, but also with our immune system, our alertness/cognitive functioning, our mood, our physical wellbeing, blood pressure etc.
Sleeping problems can be a symptom of poor mental health. For example, poor quality sleep, difficulties falling and staying asleep, as well as sleeping too much can all be linked to depression.
Sleep problems in primary school children
Having enough good-quality sleep is a key, and often underestimated protective factor for children – helping regenerate their brains and bodies, process information and memories, boost immunity, guard against obesity, and help concentration, learning and behaviour.
Primary school-aged children generally sleep for 10 to 11 hours a night. Sleep problems in childhood are common at this age and can take many forms (e.g. nightmares or terrors, sleepwalking, broken sleep patterns, moving into parents’/carers’ beds etc.). These problems can often be transient if good habits are consistently encouraged, but children can also get ‘stuck’ in unhelpful habits.
Research suggests that we are all generally getting less sleep (particularly teenagers) and that this pattern is not good for our physical and mental health. Recent school surveys, for example, point in particular to an increase in sleep problems among girls during their mid-teens – with almost half now reporting problems (Brooks et al., 2015).
It is important, if sleeping does become an issue or patterns become regularly disrupted, that help should be sought as soon as possible. School staff and parents/carers should contact school nurses for advice especially where sleeping difficulties are more entrenched and causing distress to families and children.
Protective factors: what schools can do
School staff could help all children explore sleep – what they think it is for and its link with wellbeing and physical health. Discussions could also prompt children to think about sleeping, what stops them sleeping, what interrupts their sleep, the role played by dreams and what helps them sleep.
It may be useful to share some of the following basic guidance for good sleep hygiene including:
- Having a regular time to go to sleep and wake up.
- Making sure children are in natural daylight for at least half an hour– particularly in the morning.
- Making sure children get enough exercise during the day.
- Older children should avoid napping in the day.
- Avoiding caffeine (including chocolate or caffeine-based drinks) particularly in the afternoon.
- Turning off computer screens or other devices at least an hour before bedtime. Blue light from TVs, tablets and mobiles excite the brain and interfere with the sleep hormone levels, preventing the brain from feeling sleepy.
- Having low lighting and a quiet space in bedrooms.
- Avoiding checking devices, particularly in the middle of the night.