Submitted by guest blogger Ruth OT
Before I trained to be an occupational therapist, I studied neuroscience to masters by research level. It is so helpful in my work to have that underpinning knowledge of some of the things going on in the brain and how these affect behaviour. However, I don’t miss growing neurons in petri dishes and counting them.
Our kids are not great sleepers, to understate it considerably. We have had more sleep advice than anyone has any business accessing. It’s been variably effective. In the UK, there are several charities who offer sleep advice for children with special needs (Cerebra and Scope to name but 2), alongside advice from our children’s centres and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). They’ve all been helpful, they’ve all prioritised the importance of a good consistent bedtime routine, on minimising distractions from sleep and on knowing your child’s sleep patterns. We have filled in more sleep diaries that you can shake a stick at (incidentally, this is the most effective way to make sure your child actually sleeps I have found! It’s amazing how well they sleep when you’re filling in a sleep diary to prove they never sleep).
I have promised myself I will stop reading sleep advice because I only get frustrated when we still don’t sleep, but here are some things we have found helpful (some nights at least!) and a little bit of the neuroscience of why.
One of our children along with many autistic people I know is taking melatonin at bedtime. The doctor tells us frequently that this is expensive, and we’d prefer to avoid medication as much as we can on general principle, so it’s worth knowing a bit about what melatonin does and how to boost it without medication.
Melatonin is a substance which the brain makes from the neurotransmitter serotonin, mostly in the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a tiny gland right in the middle of the brain and close to the visual centres of the brain. It starts making serotonin into melatonin when the light reduces, stimulating sleep onset. I don’t know whether my kids’ pineal glands are less efficient converters of serotonin to melatonin or whether their brains are less sensitive to the melatonin produced, but I just need some sleep so here are some ways we try to boost melatonin production.
Light and Screens
If melatonin is made when the light dims, it stands to reason that emphasising that light change is important, so we make sure they get lots and lots of daylight when we want them to be awake, and none when we want them to be asleep. This is not always easy in Northern England and involves a lot of getting wet and muddiness. We play outside every day we possibly can. When we can’t, we are lucky enough to have a big conservatory which we use as a playroom, and we have daylight effect lightbulbs in key rooms of the house which we use in daytime then switch to lamps in the evening. We have found that physical activity in the day can help with sleep, but if it’s all indoors such as soft play centres and swimming pools, it’s nothing like as effective as a walk outside no matter how wet the walk may be!
We have a no screens after the evening meal rule when sleep is particularly tough. Focusing visually on an (often bluish) glowing screen will inhibit melatonin production if you’re struggling to sleep, turn the technology off, it really does help.
We have blackout blinds behind blackout curtains and we close the doors of all the rooms that don’t have that every night (actually in our child who takes melatonin’s bedroom, we’ve made wooden boards which fit exactly into the window area over the Velcro blackout blind. Yes, I am serious…).
If melatonin is made from serotonin, it also stands to reason that it’s a good plan to have a lot of serotonin available to be converted. A large proportion of the antidepressants available have their effect by increasing the amount of free serotonin in the brain, this may explain some of why depression can affect sleep patterns. If you think mental health difficulties may be influencing sleep patterns, please talk to your doctor about this. It can be a vicious cycle that poor sleep exacerbates depression and depression then makes sleep more difficult, it is important to break that cycle.
There are certain foods which contain tryptophan which the brain then makes into serotonin. I know some parents who swear by these in evenings, these include cherries, nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey (you know how we all fall asleep after Christmas dinner?), fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs. Just be aware that strong flavours and smells can be very alerting and so be less helpful than you’d think. Also, many of these can be allergens.
It’s also good to know that serotonin and melatonin levels rise with proprioceptive activity (movement against resistance, which helps the person to understand their own body more clearly), so including (not too vigorous) movement against resistance as part of the bedtime routine can really help- moving against the water in a warm bath, followed by squeezing yourself in a soft towel would be one example, or carrying a good sized box of bedtime stories up the stairs to bed. Movement of the head can also stimulate serotonin release in the brain and help sleep, just avoid spinning and sudden changes in speed or direction as these will counteract the effects.
Doing all of this does not mean you will get a good night’s sleep (I think we got about 2 hours last night!), but it might just improve your chances.