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“By the time I’ve made sure the kids have done their homework and been fed, bathed, dressed in their pajamas, it’s close to eight o’clock. Then I have to read them a story, put them to bed, deal with any of the (inevitable) drama that arises, settle them down again… they normally aren’t all asleep until about nine.  By this time I’m exhausted but I don’t want to just give up and go to bed - I want to have some time to myself.  I’ll have a glass of wine and watch something on the television for a couple of hours.  I might get into bed at about eleven or eleven thirty and you’d think I’d fall straight asleep, but here’s the crazy thing - I don’t!  I then spend at least another hour tossing and turning until I finally drop off. The kids wake up at about six thirty and I’m shattered… I don’t feel that I ever get enough sleep.”

Sleep is important, far more important than many of us give it credit for.  Sleep is essential for a child’s growth and development, but it fulfils a restorative function for all of us.  When we sleep, our body has time to rest and recuperate, as well providing a vital opportunity for our cells to repair themselves.

As well as being good for our bodies, sleep also fulfils a number of important functions for our minds. Sleep is believed to be an important part of how we consolidate memories; that is, the process of transferring them from our short-term to our long-term memory. In this context, sleep is an essential part of how we learn. Research has shown that people are deprived of sleep do not perform as well on memory tasks and their ability to concentrate for long periods of time is severely impaired.

Getting the right amount of sleep is essential, we all know how difficult it is to try and function normally when we’re tired. According to the National Sleep Foundation, young children (between 1 and 5) need between 10 and 14 hours of sleep per night. School age children need between 9 and 11 hours per night. Teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours whilst adults need between 7 and 9 hours. These figures are, of course, just guidelines. Some people need more sleep than others and we should always pay attention to the signals our bodies give us that we aren’t getting the right amount. There are obvious signs, such as drowsiness during the day, an inability to focus your attention on a task for long periods of time or clumsiness (when we are tired, we have a tendency to become “all fingers and thumbs”). However, signs of sleep deprivation can also be weight gain, decreased libido and changes in your mood (such as feeling increasingly irritable or unhappy).

A quick Google search will bring up countless useful tips for improving your sleep hygiene. My personal favourite tip is to establish a “bedtime routine”. As parents, we often emphasise the importance of a bedtime routine to prepare the children for bed. The television goes off at a certain time. They have a bath then put on pajamas. They brush their teeth then have a story read to them. The lights are switched off at a certain time.

However, adults tend to discard the bedtime routine and have a more chaotic approach to bedtime. We might go to bed at different times depending on what day of the week it is. On one night we might be in bed with a book by ten o’clock, on another night we might stay up until midnight watching Netflix. Establishing and sticking to a routine can be a very useful way to “program” your body to prepare itself for sleep at the same each night.

Our brains are equipped with a “master clock” called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that controls the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. A bedtime routine can help provide the SCN with the right signals to prepare our body and mind for sleep. Of course, there will be days (such as at the weekend) when we don’t stick to this routine, but one should aim to adhere to the routine for most nights in the week. Although it isn’t always easy to stick to a routine, those who do tend to notice the benefits within a week or two.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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