I’ve had an unusual number of contacts and requests for sleep support lately. Is it because everyone is quarantined at home and therefore it seems like a good time to think about sleep? Perhaps. But I think there’s more going on as well. If you, or your little people are struggling with sleep, read on.

COVID overload

There may be many reasons for sleep dramas right now, but I suspect one of them is trauma. Trauma is an emotional response to a disaster (the APA has lots of good information about this). COVID-19 is nothing if not a disaster, and it is hardly surprising that we are all traumatised to some extent by it. We turn on the news, and it’s COVID. There’s not a packet of rice or pasta to be found in the supermarket, and there’s a blackmarket on toilet paper and hand sanitiser – because of COVID. Many can’t go to work because of COVID. Those who can go to work are frightened to, because of COVID. Our kids are around ALL. THE. TIME – because of COVID.

It’s an inescapable part of life right now.

And it’s causing problems with our sleep people. It’s messing with your sleep, and it’s messing with your kids sleep. Let me break down first why it’s messing with your sleep.

Impact of COVID on Adult sleep

COVID-19 trauma will cause the same kinds of effects in your brain as many other traumatic events. No, it’s not the same as witnessing a shooting, or living through a tornado, but your brain doesn’t necessarily know that. It still starts firing out adrenaline and cortisol like an army preparing for an onslaught. And, like many other mental health problems, it will cause problems falling asleep, staying asleep, and achieving good quality of sleep. You may also have nightmares, and find it difficult to fall back to sleep if you wake early in the morning. You may not feel refreshed even if you felt like you got a decent night’s sleep. You feel fatigued. All the time.

It’s not just affecting your sleep. You may feel more snappy and irritable than usual. There may be an underlying level of anxiety. You might have headaches, or feel slightly unwell (which is particularly unhelpful, as this may be triggering fears that you have the virus). You may feel like you have it all together one moment, then feel another wave of panic or fear soon afterwards. You long for some other news, and yet you may not be able to help googling and checking news headlines. The sights of empty streets may be eerie and unsettling. The scenes we see every day, as well as our vastly changed lifestyles make it hard to escape how big an impact this is happening, even if we’re not living in actual fear for our lives.

The point is, no matter how much you’re worried about this virus right now, it is likely to be affecting your behaviour, sleep and coping mechanisms. Plus, if you already had trauma in your life – whether that was birth trauma, intergenerational trauma, previous adverse experiences in childhood, the legacy of racism, recent bereavement, a diagnosis of a life -threatening illness, or post-traumatic stress disorder, it is likely that your stress response is even higher right now, or that your threshold for coping is even lower than the average adult…

How is it affecting our kids?

I cannot tell you how many people are reaching out for help right now. From the many contacts I’ve had recently, I can tell you that the problem seems to be 5-fold:

  1. Because we are not sleeping well, our tolerance for fragmented sleep (even if this is normally something we can deal with), or bedtime drama is reduced.
  2. We may need more sleep than usual, as a response to trauma (it’s hard work gearing your brain up for battle constantly).
  3. Our kids are picking up on the general stress, and unsettled atmosphere, as well as the vastly altered patterns of life.
  4. The reduced activity levels may mean your kids actually aren’t as tired as usual, so they may appear to ‘fight sleep’. They might just need less sleep right now…
  5. Children who are old enough to figure this out may also have their own anxieties and worries, and may be missing their friends, usual routines and school more than they can express.

So how can we COVID-cope with this?

This is an important question. After all, this is not a problem that is likely to go away any time soon. We have to develop some medium-term strategies to help us and our children. We also need to think creatively, as many of the usual resources we would use may not be available. We can’t necessarily all just call up a therapist, or attend an appointment to get some help with this. We need strategies that we can do from home, that help us get through the day, support sleep, and help our kids. Here are my suggestions for:

  1. Supporting sleep for adults
  2. Supporting sleep for infants and children
  3. What to do if you feel like you need more help

Supporting sleep for adults

If you’re struggling with your own sleep, it may be time to radically re-think your sleep, and be open minded about what might work.

First of all, you’ll need to manage your own anxiety. Anxiety worsens sleep, and lack of sleep can make anxiety worse. It’s a real catch-22. The trick is to try to short circuit this, by addressing one of the two. Some practical suggestions include:

  1. Avoid checking social media or the news if it’s stressing you out. Perhaps decide that you will check once or twice per day, for a set amount of time, and that is it.
  2. Plan to do one thing every day that you enjoy (that is in your power to do!).
  3. Try to get outside if you possibly can, and if it’s safe with social distancing. If not, spend time near an open window to try to get some fresh air. It’s good for your brain, and your soul.
  4. Try escapism! A total topic change is a good idea. Maybe binge-watching Pandemic or Contagion isn’t your best bet right now…
  5. I suggest in general that if you’re suddenly finding you can’t cope with your little one’s sleep, now may not be the best time to radically address it. It may just be reduced tolerance
  6. If you’re having a really bad day, and feel close to the edge, then have a read of this blog.
  7. Connect with people, and keep talking.
  8. Try a power nap – 20 minutes may really perk you up, especially if you’re not sleeping well at night.
  9. Decide with a partner, family member, or friend that you will chat every day about normal, non-COVID stuff
  10. Re-think your sleep hygiene. If you’re feeling edgy and nervous, you may do better with a red nightlight, rather than pitch black.
  11. Practice some meditation before going to sleep
  12. Try to avoid watching the news last thing at night, or checking your social media before bed
  13. Don’t try to get an early night if you’re not sleepy – you may just lie in bed not sleeping. Not helpful. Instead, wait until you’re super tired, so you fall asleep rapidly, to avoid creating a pattern of insomnia that can be triggered by spending too much time in bed awake.
  14. Set limits for your kids – if they’re old enough, let them know when ‘quiet time’ is (for everyone).

If you’re a healthcare worker, or first responder, you may also need some additional tools as well as the above to help you wind down:

  1. Be alert to things that may trigger you – noises, news stories, your social media feed may all be triggering if you have been at the sharp end of dealing with this in hospital.
  2. Have a buddy you can debrief with at the end of a shift.
  3. Keep a diary.
  4. Talk to your line manager if there’s something that you’re worried about specifically.

Supporting sleep for infants and children

The good news is, there are actually many practical things you can do to support your children at this time. The key is to understand what they need. Your children may be struggling with sleep for a few reasons:

  1. They are not as tired as usual. This may sound crazy, but if your child normally attends swimming classes, daycare/nursery, baby and toddler groups, and spends lots of time outdoors, they may be less physically tired, as well as less mentally stimulated. You could try a few things:
  2. Give them more toys that they can explore and figure out. I like treasure baskets – exploratory bags with household items of different textures are brilliant. Also try jigsaw puzzles, shape sorters, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts.
  3. Accept that your child may need less sleep, and don’t worry about it. Have a read of this earlier blog which will reassure you.
  4. Make sure you include plenty of opportunity to laugh out loud, be silly, and allow plenty of time to use up energy. Have a read of this blog to learn more ideas.
  5. Try to think of creative ways to use up energy. Mini trampolines are great, or try an indoor obstacle course – lay out pillows and cushions and encourage babies to crawl and haul themselves over the obstacles.
  6. They are unsettled by the general stress. It may be that they are picking up on everyone else’s stress levels. This is not intended to make you feel guilty. It’s normal to feel stressed when things are stressful. But once you’re aware that this might be an issue, you have an opportunity to try to address it in a practical way. Try:
  7. Making time for yourself every single day, to regroup, recharge and restore yourself. You really can’t pour from an empty cup. Take 5 minutes before each nap and bedtime to calm down. Try journaling, mindfulness, meditation, have a snack, or sing and dance. Whatever it is you need to feel more in control. More ideas here.
  8. Try more movement and exercise. One of the ways we get rid of cortisol is through movement. Allow your child an opportunity through moving to release their stress. Dancing, bouncing, star jumps, wacky races, hopping on one foot, laps round the living room, or garden if you have one….
  9. Try more skin to skin contact. This is especially true if touch is your child’s love language. I know my little one is exceptionally cuddly right now. Try to be alert to whether your little ones need more cuddles, touch, massage, or take a bath together.
  10. They are worried about what’s going on. If your kids are old enough, they have probably picked up on conversations, news stories, as well as how weird the whole situation is right now. Some things to bear in mind:
  11. Kids sometimes don’t want to tell us what they’re worried about in case they upset us. Bless their hearts, they sometimes try to protect their special adults by not letting on how worried they are. Make sure your kids know that it’s ok to talk about whatever it is they’re worried about. Tell them that it’s ok to be scared, or frustrated, or whatever it is they’re feeling.
  12. Let them make a time capsule of things going on right now. It might help them to process this if they can do something practical and meaningful to mark this time.
  13. Suggest they write a diary – getting thoughts down on paper can be really cathartic.
  14. Have a ‘worry box’ where they can write down their worries and symbolically ‘put them away’.
  15. Use play – objects like puppets often make kids open up in a way that they don’t to real people.
  16. Get them to draw or paint their feelings.
  17. Help them write a fictional letter to COVID, or invent a cartoon character to represent COVID, and then create the end of the story that gives closure.

What to do if you feel like you need more help

There may be some people reading this who know that they, someone they love, or their client needs more help than just the simple psychological first aid in this article. It is super important that you get the help that you need. Please rest assured that emergency services are still available should you, or someone you know need them. Facilities will differ in different areas, and countries so please check with your local healthcare providers for help. Some resources you may find useful:

Here are some useful contact numbers from the mind website

How to talk to kids about coronavirus

Positive parenting during COVID

Some advice about stress and anxiety

Some good tips from Beyond the Blue here

Good luck everyone, and stay safe.

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.