Sleep Your Way to Heart-Mind Well-Being

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Sleep is the foundation of our waking lives. Without it, our mood plummets, our thinking slows, and our health suffers[1]. By this point, we have probably all heard the harrowing statistics: that many of us[2] and our children[3] fail to get enough of it. 

From the perspective of Heart-Mind well-being, sleep is absolutely fundamental to being able to learn, practice, and nurture our Heart-Mind qualities. Have you ever lost your temper in traffic after being up all night with a crying baby? Missed an opportunity to tune into your child's needs after flying in on a red-eye? Steam-rolled a colleague after pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline? 

It is monumentally more difficult to foster Secure & Calm, Compassionate & KindAlert & EngagedSolve Problems Peacefully and Get Along with Others when we are low on sleep. And if it's hard for us to do so as adults, with our fully developed prefrontal cortex and mature executive functions, can you imagine how hard it is for our kids?

Research shows that sleep deprivation affects each one of the 5 Heart-Mind qualities, and that these effects can be detected and measured within the human brain. When we–and our children–fail to get a full nights sleep, we:

For a parent or educator who wants to nurture Heart-Mind well-being in their children, these facts can feel frightening. Fortunately, encouraging young people to get a sufficient sleep each night can be a simple and straightforward way to boost their Heart-Mind well-being (we didn't say it was easy though!). 

3 Ways to Boost Sleep for Heart-Mind Well-Being

  1. Start an evening gratitude practice[10] with your children. Research shows that those who practice gratitude tend to sleep better at night[11], as they have more positive thoughts (and less negative ones) before bed. 
  2. Replace screentime with greentime[12]. Fresh air, movement, and time away from screens are all sleep-boosting benefits enjoyed from time spent outdoors! 
  3. Use the family sleep toolkit[13] to troubleshoot problems and grow your sleep-skills! 

Image credit: https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/girl-tired-during-doing-homework_5000...

Watch the video "Sleep is your Superpower," presented by Matt Walker, the Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkley, for a science-based overview of how sleep can supercharge our health - and how a lack of sleep can sabotage it. 

Also, parents and educators of teens may wish to read this article from the Child Mind Institute on teens and sleep. 

According to the Government of Canada, 1 in 4 children fails to get enough sleep each night. Nightly sleep recommendations are:

  • 9-11 hours for children aged 5 - 13
  • 8-10 hours for youth aged 14-17 

According to data collected by Statistics Canada between 2007 and 2013, 1 in 3 adults aged 18 - 64 fails to get an adequate amount of sleep each night. For adults, 7-9 hours constitutes a full night's sleep.

A 2011 study using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance image) found that REM (rapid eye-movement) sleep: 

  • decreases amygdala (the brain's fear and emotion center) activity related to prior waking emotional experiences
  • increases functional connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, home of our executive functions such as reason, logic, and behavioral inhibition
  • together, these effects of REM sleep lead to overnight reductions in emotional reactivity 

A 2007 study used functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) to determine that lack of sleep disrupts the human emotional brain's response to negative aversive stimuli. When we are sleep deprived, the amygdala (the fear and emotion center of the brain) responds in an amplified, hyper-limbic way to distressing experiences or information, and loses some of its functional connectivity to the prefrontal cortex, where our executive functions such as logic and reasoning reside. These findings have led scientists to hypothesize that adequate sleep "resets" our brain to respond more appropriately to emotionally challenging situations the next day. 

A 2004 study found that, following initial training, subjects that got a full night's sleep (8 hours) were more likely to gain spontaneous insight into the study task, improving their performance. This was in comparison to subjects who sustained 8 hours of wakefulness, either during the day or overnight. 

A 2013 study found that sleep (7.5 hours on average) improved subjects' problem solving ability, as measured by successfully solving a greater number of difficult problems when re-tested after sleep. This was found in comparison to subjects who were retested after a 12 hour break that did not include sleep, or who were retested without a break. No improvement was found in the number of easy problems that subjects who slept solved relative to the other groups. 

A 2017 study found that a night of sleep deprivation significantly impaired subjects' ability to recognize happiness and sadness in the faces of others. Happiness and sadness are prosocial emotions, recognition of which is integral to highly evolved social functions such as affiliation and empathy. 

A 2015 study found that subjects were more likely to detect threat in non-threatening or even friendly facial expressions after a night of sleep deprivation.

  1. Track the number of hours each family member gets each night (eg. in an agenda, on the fridge, etc).
  2. At the end of the month, add up each family member's total sleep hours.
  3. The person with the highest score wins! Fun prize ideas include new sheets, comforter, pillows, or pyjamas - to incentivize keeping up with the good sleep!
  1. Create a a sticker chart for the class to share.
  2. Ask students to track how long they sleep each night (eg. by writing down the time they go to sleep and the time they wake up, and counting the hours in between).
  3. For each night that a student meets their age-specific sleep target (9-11 hours for children aged 5 - 13; 8-10 hours for youth aged 14-17), he is given a sticker to place in the shared chart.
  4. Compete with another classroom to see how many total stickers each class can accumulate over the course of the month. The winning class gets to have a pyjama party!

A 2008 study from the UK reported a connection between gratitude and sleep onset, quality, and duration. It found that participants who were higher in gratitude enjoyed more positive thoughts before sleep (and less negative ones), tended to fall asleep faster, and experienced improved sleep quality and duration, and less dysfunction the following day. 

One example of an easy gratitude practice you can start with your kids is "Gratitude Walk," designed by mindfulness expert Susan Kaiser Greenland. Gratitude walk combines several sleep boosting elements - gratitude, movement, and possibly time outdoors:

How to:

  • Walk slowly outside, in a dim room, or around your house. If it is safe to do so, you may want to close your eyes.  
  • With each step, think of something you're grateful for 
  • Variation: if you are doing this with your children, you can take turns saying what you are grateful for out loud as you walk

A 2011 report published by the National Wildlife Federation in the United States encourages parents to incorporate more "greentime" for their children in order to help them get more sleep. The sleep-boosting benefits of "greentime" - time spent outdoors and in nature - include:

  • more sleep-inducing natural light 
  • less sleep-disrupting blue light due to time away from screens
  • experiencing the stress-relieving and calming properties of nature 
  • outdoor exercise improves sleep 

The family sleep toolkit was developed by Kelty Mental Health Resource Center at BC Children's hospital. 

Additional family healthy-living toolkits are also available.  

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.