Both parents and kids are staying up later during lockdown—but not because they want to. Here's how quarantine insomnia is affecting us, and tips for helping your family get the sleep they need right now.

By Kristi Pahr
April 22, 2020
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It seems like the coronavirus pandemic has upended every part of normal life, from how we run errands to what we're eating to how we celebrate birthdays. There's a sense of hypervigilance and a thread of anxiety running through even the most mundane actions.

Just brought in the mail? Now you worry about sanitizing it before you open it, but what about what's inside the envelope, should you sanitize that too? Did you wash your hands long enough after touching the mailbox? Everything feels tinged with worry. And you know what happens when you worry unceasingly, all day, every day? Your sleep suffers.

Anxiety and insomnia go pretty much hand in hand–if you have one, it's likely you'll have the other. According to Washington D.C.-based psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, Alicia Clark P.h.D., inadequate sleep can cause an uptick in anxiety and conversely, anxiety can cause an uptick in poor sleep and if allowed to snowball, you'll be an exhausted, anxious wreck.

And the real kicker is that now, in a time when we're all doing our very best to stay healthy, our poor sleep is wrecking our immune systems. When we sleep, our bodies produce and release proteins called cytokines, which are integral in fighting off viruses and other microbes. If we don't sleep, we don't produce as many cytokines, leaving us ill-equipped to mount an immune response.

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And it's not just the grown-ups who are struggling with sleep. With school being closed and daily routines out the window, not to mention a decrease in physical activity, kids are staying up later and may not be getting the recommended amount of sleep.

The AAP recommends that children get the following amounts of sleep every day, based on age:

  • 4-12 months: 12-16 hours (including naps)
  •  1-2 years: 11-14 hours (including naps)
  •  3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps)
  • 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
  • 13-18 years: 8-10 hours

And it's a pretty safe bet, with parents who are exhausted themselves and may not have the energy for a bedtime battle, that many kids aren't hitting those numbers. "Parents are just overwhelmed by the arguing, or they're overwhelmed by the time management," explains Dr. Clark. "It's really hard to keep a structure when you're doing it all yourself. The parents are in the weeds of homeschooling and working. I mean they are exhausted at the end of the day and it takes energy to do this last hurdle of getting your kids to bed. It's super important, but it can be really hard."

Sleep Hacks for the Whole Family

Young Children

We've heard it since they were born, but having a set bedtime routine and sleep schedule are integral to ensuring young kids, from newborns through elementary-aged kids, get adequate sleep, even though it's hard right now. A warm bath, story, and some before-bed snuggle time will work wonders in easing the transtion from wakefulness to sleep. And having a routine now, during a time of stress, will make it easier to hold on to that routine when things go back to normal.

It's also important to include some physical activity every day. It's easy to get overwhelmed in the day-to-day changes we're facing–working from home, trying to do school, planning grocery trips and supply runs–but moving their bodies is important not only for children's physical development and mental health, but also for improving sleep.

Tweens and Teens

Older kids need more sleep than they think and with the onset of puberty and the biological changes that come with it, it can be more difficult for tweens and teens to fall asleep even during the best of times. Adding the stress of isolation and the anxiety of a global crisis can just exacerbate their inability to fall asleep at a decent hour.

Even though we don't normally think of bedtime routines for older kids, they can be a great way to cue the body into the fact that it's bedtime. Similarly, ditching the tech an hour before bed gives your tweens and teens minds a chance to relax and unwind from a day spent immersed in social media, virtual learning, and Zoom meetings, not to mention the blue light from screens can disrupt melatonin production and hamper sleep all on its own.

Grownups

As parents, the onus is on us to make sure our families are getting the rest they need. But that means we need to get adequate rest ourselves. The saying "You can't pour from an empty cup" has never been more true. The most important thing we can do for our families right now is to take care of ourselves and that means prioritizing sleep, not only for them, but for us as well.

So what can we do? It's not like the anxiety is going to let up any time soon, so how can we get better sleep when it feels like our world is crumbling around us? According to Dr. Clark, the trick to tricking your insomnia is to keep your brain occupied with a task but not so occupied that it keeps you up.

"I'm a big fan of distraction," she explains. "So counting backward by three or seven from 200, just very gently counting backwards to keep your mind loosely focused but not totally taxed. The trick is to get your mind engaged enough that it's not racing, it's not spinning into thoughts that can bring anxiety." Meditation apps and engaging in a mindfulness practice are also great ways to fall alseep or fall back to sleep if you wake in the middle of the night.

If nothing else is working, consider talking to your physician about sleep medications. Aided sleep is better than no sleep, says Dr. Clark

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and with it the anxiety we're all dealing with continues to ratchet up, prioritizing sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. You can't pour from an empty cup, so refill yours as often as you can.

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