Bigger Kids

What to do when your kid has nighttime anxiety

Gone are the monsters that lurk in the dark. Now it’s stress keeping your big kid awake. Here’s how to help.

Photo: @casschung via Instagram Photo: @casschung via Instagram

A mist of monster spray (water with lemon juice) before bed worked wonders when Julie Freedman Smith’s toddler was afraid of the dark. But that kind of magical solution may not be quite right for tackling older kids’ sleep troubles. People focus on sleep training babies and don’t realize that issues can crop up later on, too, says Freedman Smith, co-founder of Parenting Power in Calgary. But it’s never too late, she says, to give kids the tools they need to doze off on their own.

What keeps kids up at night Many older kids may have trouble sleeping because they never learned to sleep as babies. “If they couldn’t fall asleep on their own when they were little, it isn’t suddenly going to happen now,” Freedman Smith says. Then there are others who slept soundly at six months, but suddenly refuse to go to bed at six years. In this case, Alanna McGinn, founder of Good Night Sleep Site in Burlington, Ont., says stress may be the culprit. “By this age, children are experiencing life changes that can lead to anxiety and trouble sleeping,” she says. “They’re in school full-time, they have homework, activities, and less reassuring one-on-one time with their parents.”

Kids, like their parents, are busier than ever, and this means everyone is staying up later than they should. Inconsistent bedtimes and lack of routine lead to overtired, overstimulated little people who have trouble falling—and staying—asleep. “I have three children and I’d be lying if I said we have a consistent routine every night, but that’s definitely the goal,” McGinn says. “How you manage bedtime plays a big role in how the night is going to go.”

Explain why sleep matters Sometimes starting kids on the path to sweet dreams begins by explaining how important sleep is. McGinn illustrates with animals. She’ll ask kids to guess how long a tiger sleeps (18 hours) and tells them they need the same amount of sleep as a dog (around 11 hours). “I get them to think about how they feel after a good night’s sleep,” McGinn says. “Forget sticker reward charts—the reward is healthy sleep and what it does for your body.”

McGinn recommends keeping bedtime between 7:30 and 8:30 with a relaxing routine beforehand, which might include a bath, reading or colouring.

Put worries to bed Most kids have the ability to fall asleep, but Tracy Braunstein, a certified pediatric sleep consultant in Montreal, says it’s the grown-ups who sometimes get in the way. “One of the most common mistakes I see is that parents feel their child needs help to fall asleep,” she says. Even if your kid insists he needs you there, try to resist. A bedtime cuddle can be a lovely part of the bedtime routine, she says, but it should have parameters—keep it short and leave your kid to nod off on his own.

Of course, sleep issues also occur in the wee hours when we’re not always equipped to deal with them. It’s the same with adults—anxieties can surface when we wake up in the middle of the night and can prevent us from drifting off again. “Let kids know they’re normal—everyone wakes up in the night,” Freedman Smith says. What’s important is that they know how to put themselves back to sleep when it happens. She suggests coming up with a sleep strategy while the sun is up. “Ask your child if there’s a stuffed animal, a song or a video he can play in his head that makes him feel safe that he can use at night,” she says. (Sleep crutches, whether it’s a zoo’s worth of stuffies or arranging pillows a certain way, are totally fine, she says.)


She also recommends kids practise positive self-talk during the day. “They can repeat things like ‘I’m safe, I’m OK, I can fall back to sleep,’” she says. “The secret is teaching them they’re capable of rolling over and going back to sleep—and that you expect them to.”

When anxiety is the culprit, Braunstein suggests deep breathing or meditation before bed (“Your toes are getting heavy and sleepy, your ankles are getting heavy and sleepy…”). Keeping a “dump it” list beside their bed is another great solution. “They can write down anything they’re anxious about on their list,” she says. “That way it’s out of their head and on the paper.”

Consistency is key Even with all the sleep strategies in the world, there will still be nights when you’ll hear a little voice call out at 3 a.m. Just like kids, parents need a plan in place. Freedman Smith suggests you have a mantra ready, too—instead of saying, “Go back to sleep,” try, “Put your head on the pillow, close your eyes and wait for sleep to come.” With enough practice, kids realize they can summon their courage and get through the night on their own. “When my daughter woke up, we used calming strategies and stayed consistent,” Freeman Smith says. “Once she wasn’t scared anymore, she was able to stay in bed.”

A version of this article appeared in our December 2016 issue, titled "Up at night," pg. 62.

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