Good Night, Sleep Tight: What if I Can’t Sleep Right?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

The American Psychological Association recently issued a press release about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our dreaming. Not surprisingly, the information in four published articles indicates that people are having more anxious dreams now. This seems obvious given the emotional toll and high levels of stress as everyone juggles work, virtual school, health and safety, and family needs in a pandemic. We have an overflowing plate of stress on our hands with distant notions of when this stress will end. While these articles describe the anxious dreaming and sleep of adults, it’s not a stretch to consider that children and teens may have disrupted sleep right now. Their plates are overflowing, too, as they manage virtual and hybrid learning, confusing social demands, less movement and exercise than usual, and less contact with both adults and kids.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sleep to our system. Sleep is when our body restores itself, builds important immune functions and consolidates memories and learning. When children do not get enough sleep, we can see a whole host of problems, including issues with attention, concentration, learning, irritability, poor emotion regulation and risky behaviors in addition to the physical health outcomes.

What do we do to help our kids and teens get more and better sleep? It’s time to get sleep hygiene back on track. It’s possible to do even if the pandemic has caused the norm to drastically shift. Here are some tips for promoting sleep for children and teens:

Establish a consistent schedule. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Establish consistent times for settling down for bed and waking up that are the same every day of the week. Try to stick to this schedule whether your child is having an in-person learning day or remote, whether it is a weekend or weekday. This can be tricky with teenagers who tend to sleep in on weekend days. Try to stick within an hour, if possible, to get your body on a more consistent schedule. Avoid naps during the day if you can, even if there has been a rough night of sleep (or limit naps to less than 30 minutes). Daytime napping can interrupt night sleep patterns.

Develop a routine to settle for bed. Children and teens need to settle down for bed gradually. We can’t go from wide awake to peaceful slumber in a few moments. Limit screen time 30 minutes before bed as the light that is given off by televisions, phones or other devices confuses our systems and causes delays in releasing melatonin (the magic sleep hormone). Choose the same relaxing activity each night. Children and teens can read (or listen to a story read aloud by a parent), listen to an audiobook, color in special coloring book, listen to music or a podcast, or take a warm bath or shower. Include your child or teen in conversations about what relaxing activity to try before bed. Keep the same activity for several weeks before trying other ones. The brain does not want variety when you are trying to settle for bed, or it can become more alert in the face of a novel activity. The routine promotes relaxation.

Schedule talk time. Children and teens tend to think about their day as they are laying down. This can lead to “just one more thing” that kids have to tell us or one more question. They can also anticipate what is happening next, which can lead to an increase in anxiety. Schedule a “talk time” with your child or teen to discuss the day and think ahead to tomorrow. Do this at least 30 minutes before bedtime (ideally closer to dinnertime) to avoid a lengthy conversation that can activate anxiety. Use this time to validate feelings and model problem-solving about any issues coming up.

Provide comfort after dreams. We can expect that everyone may wake up at some point after an anxiety dream. If we can predict it, it can make it feel less overwhelming. Teach children and teens what to do when they wake up feeling anxious, including seeking the support of their parent for the very upsetting ones. Offer comfort and a tuck back into bed. Encourage your child to talk about how to resolve the frightening dream in a way that is silly, funny or triumphant to shift the focus away from what felt upsetting. Have a scary dream about a monster? Imagine him having to perform a ballet while balancing hot sauce on his head. Have an anxiety dream about a teacher yelling at you for forgetting your homework? Imagine turning it in and your teacher leading the rest of class in a celebratory song. You can also encourage children or teens to think of their favorite movie or book, and ask them to close their eyes and replay the movie or book to refocus the mind.

Practice breathing. To soothe our overactive anxiety systems, practice taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath filling up the back of your lungs and visualize the air going through your body. Practice circle breathing where air comes in one nostril and out the other (of course it comes in and goes out both!).  With younger kids, a little modeling helps. You can also encourage kids and teens to tense different parts of their body, hold for a count of 10, and then release to feel more relaxed.

Reach out for help. If your child or teen has persistent trouble with sleep, contact your pediatrician. It may be time for a more thorough evaluation to rule out sleep disorders, medical causes or behavioral patterns that signal a bigger sleep problem.


For more information, please check out these resources:

American Psychological Association (APA) press release related to dreaming:  https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/09/upsetting-dreams-covid-19

Fantastic APA resource on sleep: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/ce-corner-sleep

What To Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep (2008) by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.


About the Author: 

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.


If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Growing in a Fog: The Impact of Sleep Loss on Children’s Development

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

A recent study conducted at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom, supported the long-held belief that reduced sleep in children has a significant negative effect on their cognitive and emotional functioning. Findings were recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, in an article, titled “Sleep duration, brain structure, and psychiatric and cognitive problems in children.”

When examining children ages nine to 11, reduced sleep was associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and impulsive behavior, as well as poorer cognitive performance. Findings showed that, on average, behavior problems were 53% higher in children who got less than seven hours of sleep, compared to those who got nine to 11 hours. Additionally, on average, total cognitive scores were 7.8% lower in the children with reduced sleep.

Negative effects of sleep loss were not only observed through children’s behavior and task performance, but there were table differences within brain structure as well. Shorter sleep duration was related to lower volume in brain structures that are responsible for decision making, learning, emotion regulation, memory, executive function, sensory regulation, language function and spatial perception, among other skills. Because sleep is a highly active process, during which children’s brain circuitry reorganizes, it is thought that sleep loss can interfere with actual physical brain maturation, not just emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning.

This study conducted by the University of Warwick is not the first to demonstrate how a lack of sleep negatively impacts children’s and adolescent’s functioning. In addition to better emotional and cognitive health, adequate sleep is also related to better physical health, including reduced injuries, heart disease and obesity (www.aap.org).

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day; grade school children get 9 to 12 hours of sleep; and teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep. While this is so, children are often chronically sleep deprived due to excessive school, social and extracurricular demands. Increasing screen time and access to social media is also problematic, not only because these distract children and teens from sleeping, but technology use interferes with the release of melatonin, reduces REM sleep and activates the wake center of the brain. It is thus not surprising that a 2015 analysis of data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys found that approximately 57.8% of middle schoolers and 72.7% percent of high schoolers are not getting enough sleep. In spite of this, school start times remain early, expectations for extracurricular involvement remain high, and blue-light-filled technology is increasingly necessary for the completion of late-night homework assignments. This occurs alongside a steady rise of stress and anxiety within pediatric populations, pointing to the importance of re-evaluating the demands and conditions under which our children are expected to grow and learn.

Sleep is a foundational necessity on which cognition, emotion regulation, attention and learning build. The negative effects of sleep loss can be felt at any age, but they are particularly concerning in childhood, a time when the brain is rapidly developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics has provided some tips on how to support healthy sleep in a child of any age. These can be accessed at www.healthychildren.org, at the below link.


University of Warwick. (2020, February 4). Children’s mental health is affected by sleep duration. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200204094726.htm

Wheaton AG, Jones SE, Cooper AC, Croft JB 2018, ‘Short Sleep Duration Among Middle School and High School Students — United States, 2015’, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep., vol. 67, pp. 85–90.

American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics Supports Childhood Sleep Guidelines, June 13, 2016. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Supports-Childhood-Sleep-Guidelines.aspx

American Academy of Pediatrics (2018). Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need? Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/sleep/Pages/Healthy-Sleep-Habits-How-Many-Hours-Does-Your-Child-Need.aspx


About the Author:

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.

Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Debt

By | NESCA Notes 2018

By: Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, NESCA

For many students, teachers, and families in Massachusetts (and several other states throughout the country), this week marks a vacation and a time for rest. In that spirit, this week on NESCA News & Notes, we are highlighting the importance of good sleep hygiene for children, a vital element of wellness, mental health, and learning. Check out this short TEDx talk by Roxanne Prichard of the University of St Thomas about the importance of sleep for children. Highlights of the talk include:

  • Sleep is an essential for a healthy brain
  • United States school children are ranked 1st among nations with academic problems directly attributable to sleepiness
  • A 2014 Sleep in America poll found that fewer than 1 in 5 teens is getting the minimum amount of recommended sleep

Benefits of a good night’s sleep include:

  • Better regulated vital systems including growth and immune responses
  • Better memory and ability to retain new information
  • Boosts mood

Tips for good sleep health (according to the CDC):

  • Be consistent. Make sure your child goes to bed at the same time each night and gets up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends (as much as possible)
  • Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
  • Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom
  • Avoid screens 30 minutes before bedtime. Promote reading, drawing or another quiet, non-screen activity to wind down
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and sugar right before bedtime
  • Make sure your child is getting some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help a child fall asleep more easily at night.

So how much sleep does a child need?

For more information on Dr. Roxanne Prichard as well as sleep hygiene, visit the following web sites:

About the Author:

Rebecca Girard, LICSW, CAS is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in neurodivergent issues, sexual trauma, and international social work. She has worked primarily with children, adolescents, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families for over a decade. Ms. Girard is highly experienced in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) as well as Socio-dramatic Affective Relational Intervention (SDARI), in additional to a number of other modalities. She is excited to provide enhanced psychotherapy to children with ASD at NESCA as well as to provide individual and group therapeutic support to youth with a range of mood, anxiety, social and behavioral challenges. Her professional passion is promoting tolerance and understanding of neurodiverse people of all abilities, and creating an empowering and accepting environment in therapy for clients of all ages. Her approach is client-centered, strengths-based, creative and compassionate.