I can’t sleep

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For parents of young children, there are few things as magical as the evening – that special time that comes right after bedtime. All the chaos and noise of homework, dinner, bath, and bed will fade into the distance (until tomorrow). The children will nestle contentedly under their covers and drift off to sleep while parents enjoy a glass or mug of something relaxing, have those grown-up conversations that have been impossible all day, and generally enjoy the peace and quiet. After investing in the family all day, this might be the first chance many parents get to focus on themselves and recoup some energy for the next day. The reality for many families, though, is that bedtime doesn’t mean time to knock off, it means phase two is only just beginning and those dreams of ‘evening’ need to take a back seat.

Whether it’s a short phase or a recurring issue, plenty of children have trouble settling themselves to sleep. The first thing that usually happens is parents’ worry buttons are pushed hard. What if they don’t get enough sleep? What if they’re tired at school/kindy tomorrow? What if they wake in the middle of the night and disturb me? What if tiredness makes them vulnerable to sickness? How will I cope without my evening? What am I doing wrong? How can I make them go to sleep?

A worried parent will try anything, and so often a range of less-than-helpful strategies will be cycled through as panic begins to set in. Sometimes there’s a slight improvement, but then for no apparent reason you can have the worst night ever, and before you know it you have a majorly stressful situation on your hands. Let’s have a look at what might be going on for a child who’s having trouble falling asleep, and what parents can do to help.

What’s going on?

Responsive to over-stimulation

Some kids are particularly responsive to over-stimulation. If they’ve had a busier and more active day than usual, you might anticipate a trouble-free bedtime but get just the opposite. It may not matter if your child is happy to look at books until they feel sleepy, but if you’ve got an active child who prefers to stay in your company, very busy days can cause chaos at bedtime.

Body clocks

Some kids’ body clocks run a little later than others. Just like adults, some children are markedly early birds or night owls. As long as you can keep bedtime within a reasonable window, I don’t think it should matter too much if one child has a bedtime of 7pm and another 8pm. It can be helpful to go to bed feeling a little bit sleepy, and for some kids this happens just a little bit later than we’d prefer.

Sensitive over-thinkers

Some kids are sensitive over-thinkers who find it hard to wind down at night. This is the child who seems to need the peace and quiet of bedtime to begin processing everything that has puzzled or disturbed them during the day.

Anxious

Some kids are anxious about being in the dark or away from you. They may have always been prone to anxiety about a lot of things, or you might see a totally unexpected spike of anxiety in an otherwise worry-free child. Of course the bedtime issue can be a kind of mask for what is really bothering them. Consider carefully the changes, upsets, or adverse events which might be temporarily causing your child to worry more.

Fearful

Some kids are fearful of intruders, monsters or other things which might attack in the night. This is very common for young children. Mostly it will be manageable and pass within a reasonable amount of time, but for some children night fears are harder to shift.

Food or other allergens

Some kids will be reacting to food or other allergens which leave them too wired to relax. Check with your GP if you have any reason to think that certain foods are affecting your child’s ability to settle to sleep.

Self-fulfilling belief

Some kids develop a self-fulfilling belief that they can’t fall asleep. Whatever has caused them to have trouble falling asleep, a positive attitude will help to reduce the likelihood of this becoming a long-term issue. The act of falling asleep requires a mind which is relatively empty of troubling thoughts, so it’s not surprising that someone who’s repeating, “I can’t get to sleep! I can’t get to sleep!” at top volume inside their head is going to struggle to do just that. Without our careful guidance kids can take on board lots of unhelpful beliefs about sleep, such as, “Every night will be the same forever”, “I’m awake most of the night” or, “There’s nothing anyone can do to help me”.

Need someone with them

Some kids believe they need someone with them to fall asleep. This habit can be a really tough one to break, particularly if someone has almost always stayed with them as they’ve nodded off.

What can help?

After going through the process of helping our then six-year-old daughter to settle more peacefully at night, I can say without doubt that the most unhelpful thing we did was telling her to, “Go to sleep!”. Out of panic and concern for her well-being, we were basically asking the impossible of her. For a child who is already feeling the weight of the world and in a state of high tension, all this did was take us several steps backwards. On top of that, the anticipation of having us tell her to go to sleep joined the list of things she was anxious about at bedtime.

Recognise that no one can decide the moment they will fall asleep. Your child is not holding out on you, deliberately putting off succumbing just because they want to put the family through chaos and distress. Their reasons may not make much sense to us, but there is enough stuff going on in their minds and bodies to make it very difficult for them to relax. Luckily, there is a lot we can do to help.

Inner Parent Coach

Locate and hold on tight to your inner Parent Coach – the calm, confident, reassuring, firm and friendly side of you. Try not to yell or get too emotional. Don’t feel you have to over-talk the solution or find something fresh to say each night. Often the same old phrases repeated calmly and lovingly are what helps most. We got the most traction with phrases such as, “Don’t say, ‘I can’t sleep’ – say, ‘I’m not asleep yet’.” “You’ve had 2314 nights in your lifetime so far. You’ve managed to fall asleep on every single one of them and tonight will be no different.” “Some people just take longer to fall asleep than others.”

Lower the stress

Anything at all that you can do to lower the general stress of the household will probably help. Even if it doesn’t directly change anything affecting your child, you will be better resourced to deal with the extra demands put on you in the evening. Try to minimise or put on hold non-essential activities or outings, and make an effort to sort out other niggling sources of stress like a toothache or a leaky roof. The less you have on your plate means that if tiredness causes your child to get a cold or be extra-grumpy, you will find it easier to keep it all in perspective and refrain from becoming anxious yourself.

Rituals and routines

Rituals and routines never fail to calm and reassure. Having a bath or shower near bedtime is a good idea because it raises your child’s body temperature. The natural cooling down that happens over the next hour or so helps the body to fall asleep. Check that their room isn’t too warm, as we tend to sleep better in cooler temperatures. Story time, a quiet game together, or just a cuddle and chat about the day are all lovely bedtime rituals that build closeness and security. Keep lights dimmed and avoid bright screens for a decent period before bedtime as this also helps the brain to recognise that it’s nearly time to sleep.

For children who love to stick to the plan, create a chart they can use to tick off the parts of their routine. Seeing in black and white that they have had a snack, a warm milk, read a story, talked with dad, and tucked in teddy can help to alleviate anxiety created when the end of the day is variable or unpredictable. Make sure that if you have a chart, you stick to the chart and aren’t tempted to add endless extras. Kids might ask for these, but you want to send the message that everything on that list is all you need to build their confidence that the routine can provide safety and comfort.

Conversations about concerns

All children (especially sensitive, anxious, or fearful ones) need to know that mum or dad is there to hear out their concerns. Take care at bedtime, though, as conversations that delve into worries and fears can quickly get out of hand and leave your child more panicked than they were before. Teach your child to build boundaries around where they’ll let their mind go. For those who can write, encourage the use of a notepad and paper beside the bed to jot down topics that need to be thrashed out in the morning. Try lines such as, “That sounds like something very important for us to discuss. Why don’t you note it down and we’ll make an appointment to go over it at breakfast time?” “Let’s make a list of three things you want to talk about tonight, and we’ll give them five minutes each, okay?”

Diet

Some foods are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid which our bodies don’t produce on their own, which helps regulate the hormones that drive our sleep patterns. Try a snack including some of the following before bedtime to boost your child’s tryptophan stores.

  • Dairy products – yoghurt, milk, cheese
  • Protein – beef, pork, turkey, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs
  • Soy products – tofu, soy milk, soybeans
  • Legumes – beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Whole grains – oats, brown rice, wheat, wheat germ
  • Nuts and seeds – hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fruit – mangos, dates, bananas
  • Vegetables – beets, kelp, spirulina, potato skins Cocoa: dry powder, chocolate

Source – www.3fatchicks.com

Relaxing

Some kids react really well to a back or foot rub, and it’s said that a few drops of lavender oil have sleep-inducing qualities. Everyone’s different, so it really comes down to what your child finds relaxing, or more importantly believes can relax them. Share your ideas about what works for you when you have trouble sleeping – they may find it works for them too. It may be a particular kind of music or nature sounds played gently in the background, or alternatively, Smiling Mind is a great example of a free app which guides children through mindfulness exercises to help them relax and gain better control over unhelpful thoughts.

There will always be nights where they are stretched beyond their limits to cope and you will know your physical support is required, but unless it’s really necessary, try not to stay with them while they fall asleep. If at all possible, and particularly for older children, it’s a good idea to help them gather the resources they need around them instead. Can they have a mountain of books beside the bed to churn through until they feel sleepy? Some special toys in bed with them? Even a valued item of yours or a piece of clothing you’ve worn that day which is warm, comforting, and smells like you. Any of these can be a valuable transitional tool to bridge the gap between the waking hours and sleeping hours, and most importantly, will help build your child’s confidence in their own ability to fall asleep.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi there, we have gone though a very similar experience with our 4 yr old after her little brother was born almost a year and a half ago. However, after speaking to a psychologist we know, and trying all the ideas that she gave us (which are almost identical to the ideas Andrea has suggested), we have had no improvement. Sometimes getting our daughter to stay in bed initially is very difficult but other nights she will go to bed and get to sleep ok at first but regardless of how bed time goes, she still gets up 2-6 times a night every night. We are completely exhausted & out of ideas. Any other suggestions for dealing with this issue? Thanks so much, Ellie

    • Avatar

      Hi Ellie,

      This is tricky especially if you have tried lots of good ideas already!

      One of the harder ones to do, but has is good effect strategy, is to reduce or eliminate the ‘huffing and puffing’ that goes on when your child wakes up in the night. You cannot control them waking up, but you can manage yourself.
      Huffing and puffing can look like;
      Threats – if you don’t you will not …
      Rewards – If you stay in bed until morning, I will give you …
      Talking – entering into debate, conversation, arguments – anything at all that is full of words
      Mum and Dad getting offside with each other. That is why you need a calm plan to work through so that you don’t have to work things out when people are exhausted, anxious or frustrated.

      And when your child does improve, keep the praise on the low down. It is probably more helpful to say “I bet you enjoyed your bed last night.”

      If you would like to talk some more, please get in touch with us and we can arrange a Family Coaching session.

  2. Avatar
    Andrea Logan on

    My daughter has no problem going to sleep she just wakes very early and doesnt go back to sleep.