Helping Children with Sleep

Helping Children with Sleep: Bedtime Routines, Facing Fears, and Nighttime Awakenings

Hello brave parents and caregivers!

So, how do you manage good sleep habits in older children? It’s hard, right? As their brains develop, they have better imaginations and subsequently more capacity for fear. They’re able to imagine hypothetical scenarios whereby the monster in the closet is ready to pounce as soon as mom leaves the bedroom. And boy can they can talk up a storm, rendering bedtime stall tactics even more sophisticated. I love getting those big questions just as I’m walking out her bedroom door: “Mom, what does infinity mean?” Ugh.  

Bedtime Routines for Children

How do you help your child get a good night’s sleep? Here is what helps me:

  1. Consistent early bedtime. Yep, I’ve been sticking with this since she was a baby. The more she sleeps, the later she wakes up, the easier she falls asleep, and, you guessed it, the more sleep she gets. With the appropriate amount of sleep on board, she has better control of her behavior and emotions and is so much more fun to be around!

  2. Routine, routine, routine. For us, this involves wind-down time, cuddle time, then a lights-out routine.
  • Wind-down time: These are the activities you do about a half hour before bed. Not only do they relax the child, they cue the brain that it’s time to prepare for sleep. It’s important to avoid screen time during this time, as the light from screens inhibits melatonin production, which we all need to fall asleep. For us, wind-down time includes brief journaling, bath, and toothbrushing.
  • Cuddle time: This is what you do once you get into bed. We like to read then talk about the peaks and pits of our day.  
  • Lights-out routine: This starts when your child is tucked in and you’re about to leave the room. It can include activities such as tucking in stuffed animals, a back rub, hugs, or “I love yous”.

Helping Children with Bedtime Fears

All good, right? Nope, enter the fear of bears coming into our home. (I’m looking at you, Brave). For the record, I realize this worry may not be so farfetched in some areas of the country, but, in suburban Midwest America, an in-home bear sighting was unlikely!  Children are glorious in their capacity for magical thinking. Unicorns, fairies, it’s all so beautifully real. To appeal to this, I tried the age-old monster spray tactic. We worked together to make “monster” spray out of water, flower petals, and perfume and sprayed it around the bedroom each night to keep the bears away. This helped a little but did not have quite the longevity I was hoping for. Feeling a bit defeated, I drew on a therapeutic strategy; I purposefully engaged her in discussions about bears and bear-related activities. Counterintuitive, right? But thoughts actually hold more power when we try to ignore them and less power when we put them out there. We colored pictures of bears, sang songs about bears, read books about bears, and visited the polar bear at the zoo. I sometimes flipped the scenario and wondered aloud how scared a bear might be to find herself wandering around a strange house, a tactic that turned out to be particularly helpful.  It took a little time, but, to my relief, this technique eventually worked and for good. And, for those wondering, though there is no longer fear of a bear wandering into our home, an appropriate fear of bears remains!

Handling Nighttime Awakenings

Children can have beautifully busy brains. In my life, this translated into a stretch of time punctuated with nighttime awakenings that inevitably led to mommy awakenings. I recall being woken up to hear all about wild dreams, ideas for new inventions, and to confirm that 2+2 =4. In my half-awake haze, I’d make the rookie mistake of responding here and there, hardly aware that I’d just reinforced the behavior; in other words, by responding, I had unwittingly encouraged waking me up again and again. After a while I was so exhausted I could have sworn I was back in the newborn stage. I finally wised up and, when greeted by my oh-so-cute nighttime visitor, responded with a simple “back to bed” in a neutral tone and wordlessly walked her back to her bed. We danced this dance again and again. Eventually, she caught my drift and realized that mommy was not down with middle-of-the night discussions of any kind, and she eventually stayed in her bed through the night. (You may also consider doing the walk-back in a gradual fashion; for instance, at first walking the child all the way back to his bed, then to his doorway, then to your doorway, then he’s on his own). I’m not gonna lie, this technique took a while, but it did eventually work, so let this be my pep talk for you–don’t give up!

Brave parents and caregivers, I hope these pointers help as you work with your children to develop healthy sleep habits. The road can be challenging, but investing the time and energy in healthy sleep will pay many dividends toward your child’s health and well-being for years to come.

Until next time,

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