“I’m feeling so awake today!” said no teenager ever. We all know the signs of tiredness: bags under the eyes, pallid skin, frequent headaches, dry lips, sugar cravings. And that’s just when we look at ourselves in the mirror!
I’ve been a youth worker and parent long enough to know that some level of tiredness is usual in children and young people, so it took me a while to recognise a crisis even when it was staring me in the face. One day I wrote down the topic of every significant conversation I’d had with young people over a week and realised that tiredness was among children and teenagers’ biggest concerns. It was then that I had a mini-epiphany. I had become so used to exhausted teenagers telling me how tired they were that it had started to seem like an unfixable problem.
As a parent, my task is to support my children in all areas of their lives. As a youth worker I feel the same way. Yet I realised that with this particular struggle I had no specialised knowledge or skills to help them, partly because I was experiencing just as much tiredness myself! Tiredness is widespread, chronic and commonplace. It is a significant problem, but it is not unfixable.
Recently, I was so tired that when I parked my car ten minutes early to pick up my children from school I fell asleep in the driving seat. Another parent tapped on the window and I woke with a start, wiping dribble from my face. Tiredness messes with our emotions and makes us less productive. We live in a culture that values busyness to the point where tiredness sometimes gets swept into its reflected glory. People will always tell you how busy and tired they are. Many people are exhausted. And many are chronically sleep-deprived.
Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
To be Jesus to people, we need to be restful people who can help our children feel rested. Breaking some of our culture’s destructive habits, cultures and behaviours takes effort, understanding and behavioural change.
Causes of tiredness vary from person to person, but our culture of busyness, screen addiction and poor emotional health have created a culture of pervasive sleep deprivation. Sadly, children are in the eye of this particular storm. Teenagers’ circadian rhythms (the body clock that controls the sleep cycle) is set an average of two hours later than that of an adult. The light of electronic devices, 24-hour access to social media, and rising stress and anxiety often exacerbate this problem.
As Christians, we don’t need to be victims of unhealthy cultural behaviours. Romans 12:2 says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This verse talks about a renewing of the mind, and for many this is how we need to approach tiredness. For most people, tiredness isn’t something that has just happened to them. Simple lifestyle changes can reverse sleep deprivation and help us build fuller, healthier lives.
Really loving and helping our children and young people takes some understanding of sleep. Sleep is complicated. For the shrinking group of people who just put their head on the pillow every night and fall asleep, it might seem like the simplest thing in the world, but it isn’t. Even for these people, a complex process takes place every night. Understanding sleep deprivation requires some comprehension of sleep patterns.
What is sleep?
Imagine an alien race that didn’t sleep asking what sleep is. What would you tell them? You could describe behaviour changes such as lying down, closing eyes and reducing activity, or you could describe physiological changes such as heart rate and breathing slowing, body temperature reducing and dreams taking place. Sleep is when we reversibly disengage with the environment around us, suspend full consciousness and relax our nervous systems. It sounds simple, but it’s actually very complex. Many things happen when we sleep.
There are four distinct stages of sleep. In stage one, ‘light sleep’, we gradually disengage with the environment around us. Ideally, we then drift into stage two, where we generally spend the longest time. During this stage, our brain prunes away unnecessary thoughts and memories as it goes through a daily clean. Stage three is ‘deep sleep’. During this stage our heart rates slow, our breathing regulates, and our body temperature drops. The last stage is ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM). During this stage, our brains become very active and produce vivid dreams. In a healthy sleep rhythm, we cycle through these stages four or five times in a night, with each cycle lasting between 90 to 120 minutes. So a good night’s sleep will have at least four clear cycles of REM and non-REM sleep.
Sleep is important for memory retention, attention, creativity, insight, problem-solving, emotional regulation, balance, growth, healing and building immunity. Each of these areas is developed during different stages of the sleep cycle. REM sleep builds insight and problem-solving by helping to link ideas. It also stores and makes sense of emotions, helping with our emotional regulation. Deep sleep encourages growth, healing and refreshes the immune system, while REM and deep sleep are needed for memory retention. Sleep is incredibly important, and it’s not just length of sleep that matters, but quality as well. It is only in quality sleep that these cycles can fully do their distinct jobs.
“To be Jesus to people, we need to be restful people who can help our children feel rested”
How can children sleep better?
Sleep quality is affected by our circadian rhythms. Five things influence these rhythms: light, food, temperature, exercise and social interaction. These factors are called zeitgebers or time-givers. Our sleep quality is highest when these five factors work together to promote good sleep. When they collaborate to strengthen our circadian rhythms, we will sleep well. But when some work against others our natural rhythms are disrupted.
The most important factor is light. Before we sleep, our bodies release melatonin, which is broken down by morning light. As light is the most important time-giver, you can see why all the advice points to switching screens off an hour before bedtime. When we use smartphones and tablets before sleep, it completely disrupts this process.
Some phones have a sleep light function. On android devices, an app called Night Filter does this for you. This is better than the regular blue light, but it’s still not ideal because one of the other five factors that influences sleep is social interaction. Our children’s brains are still open to social interaction when they use their tablets or phones before sleep.
Studies have shown that even having a switched-off smartphone or tablet beside the bed disrupts our sleep. Researchers at Cardiff University and King’s College London reviewed eleven studies involving more than 100,000 children to measure how technology was affecting sleep. They found that the use of screens before bed doubled the chances of disrupted sleep. But crucially, they found that sleep disruption was only fractionally reduced when switched-off devices remained in the room (see youthandchildrens.work/ links). Our brains associate screens with social interaction, and when phones are left nearby, our minds become reluctant to switch down.
The best way to prepare the body for sleep is to have a routine. Consider the five factors that affect the circadian rhythms and find a way to gradually switch each one down in a regular night-time routine. And stick with it.
“Studies have shown that even having a switched-off smartphone or tablet beside the bed disrupts sleep”
Another useful way of improving sleep is to help your children’s brains associate their bed only with sleep. It is not uncommon for children to lie on their beds when doing homework or using screens, but this can gradually break the mind’s connection with bed as a place for sleep. When you can’t sleep, it is better to get out of bed and read for a short while before getting back in. Your brain needs to associate bed with sleep.
What can we do?
We worship a God who rests. Because Genesis 2:2 is so familiar to us, we sometimes overlook how surprising it is: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” The idea of God resting is extraordinary. It’s hard to square the thought with his omnipotence. He doesn’t need to rest, so he must choose to rest. Perhaps God simply models rest for us, which makes it even more important for us to model it to those who learn from us.
The first thing we can do to help others is to focus on our own sleep behaviours and make them healthy. Talk positively about sleep routines and being well rested. To help our children prioritise sleep we need to make positive changes in our own sleep routines. After falling asleep on the school run, I recognised that it was time for me to practise what I preach.
Making lifestyle changes has not been easy. As a parent and husband, changing my routine impacts others. But ultimately, I want to develop positive lifestyles that I can rolemodel to others. People often talk proudly about being tired, but we need to do the opposite. We can still be honest about times when we are tired, but we should talk proudly about the occasions when we are well rested. That is the better model and the one we want others to follow.
The second thing we can do is build an understanding of sleep. You don’t need to be a sleep expert, but you do need to be a step ahead to pass on some simple advice about creating better sleep routines.
The third thing to do is to stop ignoring the problem. Tiredness doesn’t have to be the norm. It is a fixable problem. I make a point of enquiring after my children’s sleep life. Simple questions like: “How did you sleep last night?” has become part of my repertoire. And because I’ve clued myself up on the issue, I can usually offer some words of advice.
The fourth thing is to begin challenging incredibly unhealthy lifestyle patterns such as gaming and screen addictions. We have gradually allowed these things to become the norm, but they are undermining children’s quality of life.
Because tiredness is such an overwhelming problem, I offer a series of sleep workshops at one of the schools I visit. This is in its early stages, but the strength of the need is already overwhelming. Tiredness has been allowed to become part of our culture, but Christians are countercultural people. I’m not there yet, but I am purposely making lifestyle changes to role-model a well-rested life. I’m looking forward to the day when I, my children, and those I work with no longer utter those desperate words: “I’m so tired!”
The perfect sleep environment
Build a routine. Encourage your children to go to bed at roughly the same time each night.
Make sure no screens or electronic devices are used in the hour before bed.
Introduce a series of calming activities before bed. Consider your zeitgebers!
Find out whether your children need ear plugs or eye masks.
Make their beds into a sacred sleep space. Encourage them not to do homework, screen time or other non-calming activities on their beds.
Consider the room temperature. Cold face and warm toes is best.
For those who have passed your coffee addiction on to your children, don’t allow any caffeinated drinks at night. Provide non-caffeinated milky drinks, chamomile tea or cherry juice.
Try and eat your evening meal at least four hours before bed. Eating raises the body’s core temperature, which disrupts sleep. Encourage children to eat protein-rich foods, as these boost melatonin levels.
Help your children to get enough exercise, which helps with stage three of sleep.
Have ONE pillow that is right for your child. Side sleepers: full and fluffy, medium-high thickness; stomach sleepers: airy, thin, soft and mouldable; back sleepers: medium firm, possibly memory foam; allergy sufferers: synthetic fillings such as polyester or memory foam.