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New Orleans experts offer tips and tricks to build healthy sleep habits for kids and teens 

There are many ways to refer to sleep – catching Zs, sawing logs, getting some shut-eye and others. But often we come up short in obtaining the amount of sleep we need. As kids head back to school and relaxed summers give way to structure, returning to an adequate sleep schedule can be a challenge.

  Gambit's KIDS asked local experts for advice about creating healthy sleep habits.

Common sleep problems "In general, the most common sleep problems are lack of sleep and lack of deep sleep," says Jenni Evans, assistant director and parent educator at the Parenting Center at Children's Hospital. For young children, common sleep problems include a lack of rou-tine and trouble falling asleep," Evans says, "while adolescents and teens may want to stay up later due to a natural shift in their circadian clocks (as well as increased demands on their time). As a result, those groups find it harder to get up in the morning."

  How do parents know whether kids and teens are getting enough sleep? "Not feeling good?" Evans says. "Then look first at your sleep schedule." While she notes the amount of sleep each person needs varies, there are guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 10 hours a day for school-aged children and nine to 10 hours for teenagers, including naps.

Get with the program

It doesn't matter exactly how you go about resetting off-kilter circadian rhythms, the main thing is that you do it. "It takes a little time to get used to [a changed sleep schedule]," Evans says. "Rather than resetting it every Friday night and Monday morning, it's better to get into a routine you can maintain." Evans adds that respecting our circadian rhythms also helps us get an adequate amount of deep or REM sleep, which is vital to good health and well-being.

Stick to routine

Janice Foulks, director of counseling at Academy of The Sacred Heart, agrees that consistency is vital and advises students to gradually return to their school-year bedtime a while before school starts.

  "We cannot expect a child to adjust to a much earlier bedtime overnight," she says. "Moving up bedtime a half-hour a night can be helpful in getting back to the routine."

  Foulks also stresses the importance of finding the routine and consistency that is best for each child. "Every child has different needs," she says. According to Dr. Paul Remedios of Napoleon Pediatrics, night-time routines or rituals (dinner, homework, TV, cleaning, brushing teeth, putting on PJs, etc.) provide multiple benefits. In addition to cueing the body and mind to get ready for bed, they provide structure and improve family dynamics.

Snack to snooze

Some foods have been shown to promote sleep. One of the best known is tryptophan, found in foods like turkey. Molly Kimball, a dietician at Ochsner's Elmwood Fitness Center, says the key to eating tryptophan foods as a nighttime snack is in combining them with carbohydrates.

  "Carbohydrates help our bodies convert tryptophan into serotonin, which has a relaxing, calming effect," she says. While cherry juice recently has been touted in the news as conducive to sleep, Kimball cautions against juices because they're high in sugar. She suggests kiwi instead.

  "There's been research published that shows kiwi contains a compound that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep," Kimball says. Her other recommended nighttime snacks include iced passionflower tea (a fruity herbal tea that can reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality) and containers of frozen no-sugar-added Greek yogurt combined with carbs like whole grain crackers. She also suggests teaching kids to reach for healthy snacks at times during the day when their energy level is low.

  Turning to sugary or caffeinated snacks for a boost will lead to a crash, Evans says. She suggests rejuvenating with rest or meditation time coupled with gentle physical exercise such as yoga or a walk.


A 2011 study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity concluded that "people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week." The study, which followed 2,600 men and women between 18 and 85 years old, also demonstrated "a link between regular physical activity and perceptions of sleepiness during the day."

Create the environment

Making a bedroom conducive to healthy sleep habits includes a range of comfort factors: temperature (not too warm or too cold), lighting (dark for sleep), scents and sounds (fragrances like lavender are considered relaxing, while soft sounds from white noise or sound machines can be soothing).

  There is plenty of evidence that computer and television screens in bedrooms can be detrimental to sleep habits. "The blue light emitted by the screens can be stimulating," Foulks says. "There is a lot of discussion that the bedroom should be for sleep only," Remedios says. "You want to limit TV and computer time and also studying in the bedroom. If you're overstimulated, you won't get the restorative sleep you need."

  Evans recommends stopping computer use about an hour before going to bed. (Foulks recommends 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the age and needs of the child.) For students who study in their bedrooms, Evans recommends they use a chair or desk rather than studying on their bed. "Sleep associations can be very helpful," she says. "Save the bed for sleep."

Manage stress

Stress, whether brought on by an illness in the family or something as simple as a big math test, can interfere with sleep. Dealing with that stress before bedtime goes a long way toward achieving a healthy sleep schedule. Evans suggests taking time out of the day to address stressors.

  "(Set aside) time to take a ride or walk and give kids time to talk about their issues," she says. For busy teens who have difficulty balancing the demands of high school (including sports, extracurricular activities and homework), Remedios emphasizes the importance of good time management and setting priorities.

  "You have to be smart about budgeting your time, asking yourself how many things you want to do and can do, and which ones make more of an impact on you," he says. "If your health or sleep or homework is suffering, something is eventually going to take a hit."

  Foulks recommends mindfulness as a way of dealing with stress. Every day, the school has what it calls an espacio, a quiet time for reflection. "It helps students center themselves," she says. "Subtle changes can make a big difference for a child."

  "We all have ups and downs," Foulks says, "but if a child is saying 'I'm so tired,' we want to ask what we can do about that. Sleep is so important to helping them to be their best at school."

Do's for sleeping well

Stick to a schedule. Going to bed at a set time will make it easier to awaken at a set time.

Make the bedroom a comfortable environment for sleep. Blocking out light, maintaining a temperature that is neither too warm nor too cold, and relaxing and sounds pleasant fragrances can help ease you into sleep.

Take time to wind down at least an hour before going to bed.

Include physical activity in your day.

Manage stress by doing things like taking a walk with someone who can help with issues, so stress doesn't affect your sleep.

Listen to what your body is telling you. If you're tired or irritable, ask yourself whether you're getting enough sleep and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Eat a protein-combined-with-carbs snack before bedtime if you're hungry.

Limit screen time — computers, smartphones, television — before bed. The blue light emitted by these technologies has been found to have a stimulating effect.

Slumber Don'ts

Don't ignore your body's clock. Find a way to handle your schedule that allows for enough sleep.

Don't use your bed for homework, watching TV, texting or using other technology to make the bedroom a more restful environment. Encourage kids and teens to use a desk or chair instead of their beds for studying.

Don't eat a heavy meal close to bedtime because your body has to work to digest it.

Don't go to bed hungry.

Don't take a multi-vitamin before bed (B vitamins can be stimulating). Take them in the morning with breakfast.

Don't ingest caffeine or chocolate late in the day (for most, no caffeine after 2 p.m.). Remember that in addition to having a jolt of sugar, which is not beneficial at bedtime, chocolate also has caffeine.

Don't use bedtime for reminders and criticisms. It should be a pleasant, inclusive time for parents and kids to read or share memories. — Lee Cutrone


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