Why Is It Sometimes Hard to Fall Asleep?

By Howard J. Bennett

If you’re like my kids, summer vacation is a time for swimming, ice cream and staying up late. When my kids were younger, staying up late meant fighting to keep their eyes open until 9 or 10 p.m. Now that I have teenagers in my house, staying up late means hitting the hay anywhere between two and three in the morning.

The problem with staying up late is that it can throw off your internal clock and lead to insomnia. (Insomnia is the grownup word for having trouble falling asleep at night.) In addition, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, you are more likely to get sick or do poorly in school. (Sleep experts say that kids ages six to twelve need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night.)

Humans are diurnal animals, which means we function best if we are awake in the daytime and asleep at night. In the days before electricity, Mother Nature helped people regulate their sleep cycle with the sun. When it got dark outside, the brain produced a chemical (melatonin) to gradually turn down its activity and help us get ready for sleep. When the sun came up in the following morning, the light that passed into our homes reversed the cycle.

Although the electric light bulb has been around for more than 100 years, nowadays there are a ton of gadgets (iPods, cell phones, video games, etc.) that interfere with how light affects your ability to sleep.

Electronic devices interfere with sleep in two ways. First, they keep your mind active. Second, they shine a bright light into your eyes that fights the natural tendency to turn down brain activity in the evening.

Here are some suggestions to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Exercise: Getting an hour or more of exercise per day is good for you in lots of ways, including sleep. But you should not exercise right before bedtime because it may have the opposite effect.

Only use your bed for sleeping: If you sit on your bed to do homework, play games and chat with friends, you will unconsciously associate your bed with fun activities. One way to establish good sleeping habits is to use your bed only to sleep. An exception would be for people that read in bed to help them fall asleep. If you are in this group, make sure you read with a dim light.

Keep your sleep routine constant: If you stay up late on a Friday and Saturday night, your brain may not be able to adjust when you want to go to sleep at a more reasonable time the rest of the week. So only stay up one extra hour on weekends than during the week. Everyone loves to sleep late when they don’t have to get up for school or work. However, if you sleep well into the morning, it will be harder to go to sleep the following night.

Eat properly: Eating late in the evening can make it more difficult to fall sleep. It’s okay to have a snack after dinner, but make it something nutritious and try not to eat anything within two hours of bedtime.

Don’t over schedule yourself: School and homework take up a big part of your day. If you cram your after school time with soccer practice, music lessons, clubs and other responsibilities, you may be so wound up at the end of the day that your brain can’t let go. There is no magic answer for the overscheduled person (adults do it too), but sometimes you have to make difficult choices to stay healthy.

Muscle relaxation: If a person has trouble falling asleep, the worrying that comes with this usually makes the problem worse. One way to deal with this is to get your mind off sleep and on to something else. Deep muscle relaxation has helped thousands of insomniacs get to sleep at night. Your doctor can teach you how to do this or you can find information about the topic online.

Give yourself time to switch from summer vacation to school: Most people stay up too late during the summer. Therefore, give yourself at least a week to get back to a healthy sleep schedule before school begins. Instead of fighting with your mom and dad to go to bed early, come up with a written plan that gradually moves your bedtime to a more appropriate hour. Doing so will not only make you more refreshed in the morning, but it will also make returning to school a lot easier.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 9/4/11.)

For more KidsPost articles and lots of other cool stuff,
please visit Dr. B’s website at  www.howardjbennett.com.