Dr. Penny Corkum studies sleep and children, and created Better Nights Better Days, a cross-Canada trial that improved sleep for both kids and parents before the pandemic. In the last year, Dr. Corkum and her team went back to those families to see how they were doing during COVID. Their launch of a revamped Better Nights Better Days for the pandemic era is imminent.
“When we launched our survey study asking parents during the pandemic how their child’s sleep was impacting them, what really came up was that it’s the whole family and not just the child. So we not only had to help the child sleep better but also give strategies for the parent to sleep better. So we added that into the intervention as well.”
It probably goes without saying that sleep is incredibly important for children. Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep can have a big impact on a child, in terms of daytime functioning. They’re not able to focus or learn as well, and it might result in behavioural problems. Dr. Penny Corkum has been studying sleep in children for a long time. In the last decade, her sleep studies have taken the form of connecting parents and families with the interventions they now know work for children and sleep. Part of this is an e-health program, online tools that parents can access when they need them.
Between 2016 and 2018 Dr. Corkum and her team ran a cross-Canada trial called Better Nights, Better Days, to see if this program was effective. It was, and the program resulted in improved sleep, improved daytime functioning, and even parents were less tired during the day as a result. Then the pandemic hit, and it became a constantly evolving crisis – lockdown for a while, then lockdown lifted. School online from home then back to in-person classroom learning. Right away, sleep patterns were disrupted for both children and adults around the world.
The team went back to the families who had participated in the original Better Nights, Better Days trial, to see how they were doing during the pandemic.
“It seemed like a good place to start because we already knew about their sleep, and we knew that they had learned a lot of strategies to help their child sleep. We were curious – were they still using these strategies? There was some research coming out at the time that suggested families were actually having better sleep, since they didn’t have to get up at a certain time. But that’s not what we found. A small portion of our families were doing better, but about 40% of the children and 60% of the parents were sleeping worse than they were before the pandemic.”
A lot of this was happening because of disruptions in routine and structure. We sleep best when we have consistency in our days – a regular bedtime, a regular time to wake up, a standard time for supper. All of this was being upended by a constantly evolving pandemic and the restrictions that went along with it. Two of the biggest factors were anxiety as a result of worry about the pandemic, and screen time. Kids were using screens a lot more while locked down at home which was disrupting their sleep in a big way.
With new data collected from the Better Nights, Better Days cohort, Dr. Corkum and her team could move forward. Almost all the parents said they were still using the interventions they had used for sleep pre-pandemic. 95% of them said that they thought other families should have access to these strategies during the pandemic. Based on this, the Better Nights, Better Days team was able to get some funding to launch an intervention for all families during the pandemic.
That new program launches Very soon – hopefully very early in March. It is free for families to use, intended for parents of children ages 1-10 who are struggling with falling asleep and staying asleep. There have been slight modifications, now that Dr. Corkum and her team have information about the pandemic and how it impacts sleep. They’ve also added to the intervention some information about parents’ sleep, and how to help parents sleep better. Sleep is essential for the whole family!
Dr. Corkum also runs a diagnostic clinic in Truro, Nova Scotia that brings together pediatricians, school psychologists, health psychologists and others to do differential diagnostics for kids who have fairly complex presentations and need a comprehensive assessment. Well, she normally does. But in the past year the doors have remained closed because they just can’t have all those people together in one room. It’s disappointing for Dr. Corkum and her team, who likely won’t be able to re-open until next year. Therapy can be done virtually, diagnostic assessments not so much.
Dr. Corkum says she misses working at Dalhousie and seeing her students, staff and colleagues but doesn’t miss the walk! Her parking spot is far from the office that carrying a bag, and papers, and a laptop through deep snow or a blizzard makes the walk to work something of a nightmare and a serious workout, every winter. She’s still getting the walk and the workout in – but walking a big dog three times a day is a much more pleasant experience.
Fresh air, exercise, and sleep are three of the things that can make life during the pandemic a more pleasant experience. And with the launch of Better Nights, Better Days which has been modified for the COVID-19 context, Dr. Corkum is making at least one of those things easier and more accessible as of today. You can sign up for the Better Nights, Better Days during COVID-19 study here: