When Felicia Dewar’s son, Khrystian, was eight, he didn’t sleep. He simply couldn’t. Dewar would check on him at midnight and find him wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Khrystian had usually been awake for hours — not playing or reading, just staring.
She did everything she could think of to help him — a long bedtime routine, exercise, no television or computer two hours before bed. And then there was the yelling, pleading and cajoling. They wound up in the paediatrician’s office, desperate for a solution.
“It turns out he’s a worrier, just like his mom,” Dewar says from her home in Edmonton.
North American studies show up to 40 percent of children deal with sleeping problems — difficulty falling or staying asleep. Just as in adults, worries are at the heart of many children’s sleep troubles. “Anxiety and sleep are very closely connected,” says Laurel Crossley-Byers of Burlington, Ont., who runs a life-coaching practice for families and often helps young people work out their sleep issues. “When children can’t go to sleep, they know they’re supposed to go to sleep, and so then their anxiety level goes up. You get this cyclical thing happening.”
Given how tricky it is to put anyone’s worries to rest, a child’s sleep difficulties can be particularly difficult to fix. So we asked experts for their tips on helping anxious babies and kids find dreamland.
Six months to two years What’s likely keeping them awake: Separation anxiety. Even a baby who was once the world’s best sleeper might start to get upset when you leave the room.
How you can help If you’ve been rocking your daughter to sleep or allowing her to conk out on your chest, you’ll likely find she expects you to keep it up — and isn’t too jazzed about sleeping by herself. Instead of waiting until she’s out cold to put her in her crib, sleep experts suggest putting her to bed drowsy — but still awake — so she gets used to falling asleep on her own. Be sure to make this a gradual change. “Don’t just leave them,” says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “You can check on them briefly and reassure them that everything is fine. Even if there are a few tears, be clear that Mommy or Daddy is right here and will come back.”
Keep in mind it’s normal for babies to rouse briefly several times a night. When this happens, resist the temptation to pick your baby up and rock her back to sleep. Even if she’s fully snoozing when you put her down and leave, she might wake up crying because she recognizes the change, says Penny Corkum, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax who specializes in children and sleep.
Two to three years What’s likely keeping them awake: Bedtime fears, such as monsters in the closet.
How you can help Your preschooler’s expanding imagination is a normal part of development — up to 70 percent of young kids have nighttime fears — but you can use your own imagination to combat their anxiety.
If your son is concerned about monsters, for example, fill a spray bottle with water, label it “monster spray” and spritz it around his room before bedtime. Or you could suggest that monsters are afraid of the family pet — any scenario you feel comfortable with. If you’d prefer to discourage your child from believing that monsters need to be repelled because they really don’t exist, try redirecting her toward happy thoughts: suggest she close her eyes and mentally replay her favourite part of the day, for example.
“Come up with creative solutions that reassure your child, maintain your normal bedtime rules, and teach them some coping skills,” says Mindell, co-author of Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep. Keep in mind if you stay with your child until she falls asleep, it may teach her that there must be something really frightening; this doesn’t teach her how to cope.
Four to six years What’s likely keeping them awake: Nightmares.
How you can help At this age, symbolism can be a powerful but effective force. A dream catcher, for example, can be reassuring to a child when you explain that some people believe it snares bad dreams while letting the good ones through. It’s something your child can look at and have faith in. You can even get children to play a more active role by helping them to make their own dream catchers with wire, coloured beads, feathers and yarn.
If the same theme persists (say, a dream about nasty spiders), it’s helpful to address this with your child during the day. Read books on spiders to help ease fears, or encourage him to draw a picture of his dream, then have him crumple it up and throw it away.
You can also encourage a child to simply “change the channel” on bad dreams that wake her up in the middle of the night — just as she would on a scary television program. Or suggest she flip over the pillow for a fresh start, Mindell says. It’s a small gesture, but the other side really can feel different.
Seven and up What’s likely keeping them awake: Real worries. Fears start to set in about burglars, something awful happening to Mom or Dad, or a lost library book.
How you can help Such anxiety can be more difficult to manage and is often heightened at night, says Mindell. “It’s dark, it’s quiet. Your child is tired, so his coping skills are down.”
No amount of “monster spray” can get rid of real fears, but parents can help by taking the pressure off bedtime and making sure it isn’t adding to the stress. Tell your son he doesn’t have to go to sleep right away — all he needs to do is close his eyes and rest, Mindell says. Or encourage him to conjure up a scene from his favourite place to be — swimming at the beach, hockey practice or even walking the dog, if that’s what he likes to do.
This strategy works for many of the children Crossley-Byers coaches. “You’re trying to get them to focus on one thought process rather than the 20,000 moving through their heads,” she says. Crossley-Byers has also found playing a calming CD — like one that encourages a child to relax each body part in sequence — is also effective. Going over a list of the next day’s activities and doing homework right after dinner can help kids feel ready for tomorrow. Try also to build in some one-on-one time at bedtime because this is when children tend to open up and may be more likely to talk about their worries with you.
If your child is particularly sensitive or introspective, you might suggest he keep a daily journal. That’s what Dewar’s paediatrician recommended for Khrystian (now 10). Every night before bed, he writes three or four sentences in a notebook, focusing on his everyday activities and the good things in his life. “It’s off limits to Mom and only to be shared with his doctor,” Dewar says. “It works.”
Whatever plan you decide to go with, be sure to follow it consistently for seven to 10 days, so kids can get into the routine.
Why you can't nod off When kids don’t sleep, often parents don’t sleep. The frustration of not knowing how to help them can keep us up long after they finally drift off. Plus, we have our own problems to sort through when it’s finally dark and quiet: work conflicts, caffeine overload, mortgage payments and the sheer stress of juggling all those balls without dropping a single one.
All of the good work you’ve done creating wind-down routines for your kids can also be helpful for you. Read a book, write in a journal, if you have the energy, or savour a late-night cup of tea (decaffeinated, of course). And don’t stay in bed if you’re struggling to sleep: Get up until you feel sleepy again, otherwise you run the risk of associating your bedroom with the problem. If your insomnia persists after a week or two, there’s no shame in asking for help. Talk to your child’s paediatrician about sleep, or visit your own family doctor if you’re the one still suffering.
“When you have tired children and tired parents, it’s not a good combination,” says Penny Corkum, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “It affects a parent’s ability to parent.”
This article was originally published on January 25, 2012.