If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not alone.
Research shows that North Americans are sleeping less today than they were in decades previous. When living our media-dependent, activity-filled lives, sleep can sometimes end up an afterthought.
“We need to think of sleep as part of a triangle of health, equal in importance to healthy eating and an active lifestyle,” explains Penny Corkum, associate professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Psychology.
Dr. Corkum, cross-appointed in Psychiatry and Pediatrics and also scientific staff with the IWK Health Centre, is an expert in pediatric sleep. She’s the leader of a CIHR national team grant, bringing together researchers from across Canada to develop web-based interventions for children struggling with behavioural sleep problems – tools that will help parents and their children have better nights and, in turn, better days.
With World Sleep Day coming up next week—Friday, March 16—it’s worth asking questions about what happens when we don’t get the sleep our bodies need.
Effects on behaviour, pain management
One study that Dr. Corkum and her students have undertaken involved restricting or extending the sleep of typically-developing children by an hour each night to assess how it might limit their daytime function. The result was that even after three nights, the team could find evidence for impairment: changes in attention, emotional regulation, more behavioural challenges. Those results are similar to studies for adults.
“A lot of people think of sleep as a time when nothing happens, because we’re ‘offline,’” says Dr. Corkum. “But lots of things are happening: memories are being consolidated, learning happens, hormones are being released. It’s not active from a conscious perspective, but it’s like the processing that happens offline in a computer – it’s needed to run the machine efficiently.”
It also can have an impact on children’s ability to manage pain. Dr. Christine Chambers, a pediatric psychologist with both Dalhousie and the IWK Health Centre, has done “cold presser” tests, where participants place their hand in cold water to assess their reaction, comparing teenagers given an optimized night’s sleep with those whose sleep was randomized.
“The teens who had restricted sleep took their hand out of the water sooner and showed more pain, and that’s consistent with a growing body of evidence that sleep can affect pain,” says Dr. Chambers, whose findings are particularly relevant to children dealing with chronic pain. “Sometimes, just by improving sleep, children can improve their pain management.”
The struggles of sleep
Dr. Chambers explains that while working at a sleep clinic for children, she noticed “just how pervasive sleep problems are in children. But there really are simple and effective strategies [to address these] that can have a dramatic effect.”
Some of those strategies are things that may seem self-evident: having a consistent bedtime; making sure that children have a dark room; that they avoid television, computers or mobile devices just before bed; and that they be given an opportunity to fall asleep on their own.
Sometimes, these are easier said than done, though.
“Parents tend to do things that work and make sense to them in the short term – things like getting into bed with your child to help them get to sleep,” explains Dr. Aimee Coulombe, a postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Corkum. “In the short term, everyone gets to sleep quicker, but these can lead to problems with the child being able to fall asleep on their own in the long term.”
For children who are having trouble sleeping, the best thing parents can do is to adopt strategies that ease children away from dependencies like parental accompaniment, media devices, etc. and towards self-reliance when falling asleep.
It also comes back to prioritizing sleep as part of the daily routine – a message of particular importance to university students, because of the relationship between sleep and learning.
“You see university students trying to pull all-nighters, sacrificing sleep in an attempt to study, but it’s sleep that’s going to consolidate that information for them, and will help them retain it,” she says. “You can’t study effectively without a good night’s sleep.”
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