The sleep struggle for many parents is real — add in a year-long pandemic and many families have battled restless nights and insomnia.
Cyndi Cherney’s seven-year-old daughter, Lila, has always had a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep.
“I would classify her as more of a napper,” said Cherney, “definitely more cat naps.
“Very exhausting. She would wake up anywhere from two to five times a night. Sometimes she’d be up for a few minutes, sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes it’d be a couple hours.”
COVID-19 has made the situation even worse.
Cherney said losing out on sports, not being able to visit friends and family and being pushed to online school has caused Lila to worry.
“She definitely thinks about it and it all comes out at nighttime.”
Families across the country are dealing with sleep issues and losing out on much needed zzzs.
Dr. Cary Brown, a sleep researcher and professor in the department of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta, said the consequences of too little sleep could impact long-term health.
“We know that when you are sleeping less than six and a half hours a night, it increases your risk. It doesn’t cause these problems, but increases your risk for all kinds of different health conditions.”
Brown pointed to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular issues along with heart attack and stroke.
She said one U.S. study pointed to a loss of roughly 40 minutes of sleep a night during the pandemic.
“It is significant because prior to COVID-19, a large number of Canadians were already sleep deprived,” she said.
For young children, not enough sleep can affect development, said Brown.
“If they’re not well-rested they don’t grow the same way,” Brown explained.
“They’re delayed in terms of learning at school and their behaviours and all of those really important things when you’re a child.”
Cherney said her daughter’s sunny disposition disappears when she is sleep deprived. Her husband is a shift worker, so often the late night “musical bed” routine falls on her.
“Sometimes I wake up there, sometimes I wake up in my bed. I honestly never really know where I am. I feel like a rock star.”
Lila is part of a sleep program called “Better Nights, Better Days,” to help children and their parents cope with sleeping problems during the pandemic.
Both groups have also joined forces to launch a campaign called Sleep On It. The website offers articles and videos on how to deal with sleep loss during a time of crisis.
It addresses how alcohol affects sleep and the vivid dreams many of us are having during the pandemic.
Brown said stress and anxiety release chemicals that keep people up at night — “that flight or fight syndrome.”
She pointed to a number of techniques to give your brain a break — meditation, audio books or calming apps. A research project funded by Veterans Affairs Canada developed a Hand Self-Shiatsu website and app. Brown said many of the the veterans used the technique to help them doze off.
Counting sheep doesn’t help.
“We have to have our minds engaged,” said Brown.
Another major problem is a lack of routine.
“When you can literally get out of bed and walk three steps and you’re at work, that’s not healthy for anybody.”
Just like children, Brown said adults need to go to bed and get up at a regular time.
But one of the main drivers of insomnia right now is the increase in screen time and blue spectrum light.
“Blue spectrum light suppresses melatonin that we need to be able to go to sleep.”
If you’re on your phone or computer at night, Brown advised wearing blue blocking glasses an hour and half before bedtime.
“They’re magical when it comes to blocking out the blue spectrum light that we’re exposed to at night.”
Beware of knock-offs. Brown said blue blocking glasses associated with university research, like the ones at the University of Toronto, are safe and effective.
Cherney said sleep stories seemed to work best for Lila, especially when read by a woman with a British accent.
As the pandemic drags on and the stress mounts, the mother is willing to try anything and everything for her daughter and herself.
“I feel like I’ve regressed,” said Cherney, “I’m more worried about my kids and just like everyone, ‘When will this end?'”