The Impact of Sleep on Mental Health for Children and Teens

Sleep is incredibly important, and in my opinion, likely the most underrated aspect of mental health.

Most adults struggle to get the appropriate amount of sleep at night.

And when it comes to children and teens, when was the last time you heard your child ask to go to bed?

Let’s take a closer look at how important it is for your child or teen’s mental health to get the appropriate amount of sleep.

Cheng et al. (2020), in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, found that not getting enough sleep was linked to difficulties with anxiety, depression, impulsive behaviour, and poor results on cognitive tests.

To further emphasize how profound these findings were, the researchers discovered that when children slept for less than 7 hours, it led to:

  • 53% increase in behavioural problems
  • 7.8% decrease in cognitive scores

That’s significant!

And if these challenges aren't bad enough, when children and teens are consistently sleep-deprived, problems can get far worse.

Given that children and teens' brains are still developing, a consistent lack of sleep can lead to brain shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex (essential for planning and control) and the temporal cortex (important for processing language and other sensory inputs).

And unfortunately, adolescents appear to be particularly at risk, as, on average, 60% of teens sleep less than 8 hours on a school night.​​​​

Takeaway Message

Sleep is incredibly important for both physical and mental health.

And although it can be challenging to get your children and teens to go to bed, this is a vital area to prioritize.

Below I’ve included a list of sleep guidelines for all ages from sleep expert Dr. Barah, Medical Director of the Valley Hospital Center for Sleep Medicine in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

  • Newborns – 16-18 hours a day
  • Pre-school- aged children – 11-12 hours a day
  • School-aged children – at least 10 hours a day
  • Teens – 9 -10 hours a day
  • Adults (ages 20-64) – 7-9 hours a day
  • Elderly (ages 65 and over) 7-8 hours a day

3 Strategies to Help Improve Sleep

Given the significant importance of getting a good nights’ sleep, let’s look at 3 strategies to help your child or teen catch as many quality winks as possible.

1. Wind-down for sleep is important

Here is another idea that children and teens may not love, but the earlier you can get them into this habit, the better.

Incorporating a wind-down component at least 60-90 minutes before bed is essential to help signal the body that it is time to prepare for sleep.

And when it comes to winding down, there are two main rules to follow.

First, you need a relaxing, enjoyable activity to engage in before bed.

One example of an effective wind-down activity would be to simply take a bath or shower before bed.

Haghayegh et al. (2019) found that taking a bath or shower 1-2 hours before bed helped people fall asleep faster, sleep longer and sleep more efficiently.

And they also found that hot baths or showers tend to work better.

Even though the temperature is warm, the hot water stimulates the body's thermoregulatory system, which helps to lower the body's core temperature.

And a cold body temperature helps to signal the body and the brain that it's time for sleep.

So, in case you are wondering how warm the water should be, the researchers found that the temperature should be between 40-43 degrees Celsius.

And for anyone who prefers to use the Imperial System, you want the temperature to be between 104-109 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Reduce blue light

The second rule for the wind-down phase is to reduce blue light from devices such as cell phones, tablets and computer screens.

Devices are everywhere, and they have been woven into the daily lives of most families.

As such, cell phones and tablet use is common for most of us throughout the day to varying degrees.

People, including up to 90% of children and teens, use devices to help wind-down in the evening before bed.

The primary challenge with this is that the vast majority of electronic devices emit blue light, which stimulates the brain and makes it increasingly difficult to fall asleep.

So, in an ideal world, devices that emit blue light would be eliminated at least 2 hours before bed.

But given how pervasive devices are in most people’s lives, this probably won't happen. Yet, it's clearly important to reduce the impact of blue light.

Shechter et al. (2017) found that people who wore amber-tinted lenses for 2 hours before bed when looking at electronic devices experienced improved sleep.

In fact, study participants, on average, slept 30 minutes more each evening when they used the amber-tinted glasses.

And if wearing amber-tinted glasses before bed doesn’t feel like a great option, there are other options for reducing blue light.

If you have a night-shift mode on your device, I’d encourage your child or teen to use it. This will help to minimize the amount of blue light from the device.

At the very least, turning down the brightness will be helpful.

3. Keep consistent sleep and wake times

If there is one rule that most sleep experts agree on, this would be it.

It's essential to go to bed and wake-up at the same time each day.

This rule holds whether it’s a weekday or weekend, or even if you didn’t sleep well the night before.

Mellor et al. (2017) found 3 important patterns to support successful sleep, as well as overcome difficulties with insomnia.

Their findings include: 

  • Keep a consistent sleep/wake cycle at all times (even if you feel tired)
  • Avoid watching TV or using electronic devices in bed (the mind should associate bed with sleep)
  • Naps generally aren’t advisable during the day, especially if you struggle with sleep (this can also be an incredibly lousy pattern for teenagers if they sleep too little at night, then nap for several hours after school, before returning to bed again late that same evening)

So, even though it might be a little bit challenging for your child or teen to go to bed and wake up consistently at roughly the same time each day, it’s a pattern that’s well worth pursuing if you hope to effectively regulate the sleep-wake cycle in their body.

Are you surprised at how impactful sleep is on mental health?

What strategies do you use to help your child or teen prioritize sleep?

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Article by

Trevor Sullivan, MA, RP

Registered Psychotherapist

September 7, 2020