Sleeping Troubles

Guest writer, Emory Lucy Baldwin helps us find ways to develop healthy sleep habits. One of the issues parents of young children worry a lot about is sleeping--how to get their child to sleep and, therefore, how to get more sleep for themselves as well!  I certainly appreciate why this is a priority.  Goodness knows, I like my sleep too and I feel miserable if I'm not getting enough.  I truly believe adequate sleep is more than a luxury--it is essential for physical and emotional health.  Making healthy sleep habits part of your family routine is a valuable investment in your family's health.

There are lots of things a parent CAN do to support their child's healthy sleep habits.  Providing a regular routine is vital for good sleep.  Our bodies are designed to release hormones that prompt the body to shift into sleep at a predictable time.  Of course, there will be times when it is impossible to get home in time for naptime and there will be special events that are worth staying up late.  And sometimes an illness, or a move, or even starting daylight savings time, will require getting off schedule and then getting back on schedule.  But, overall, parents can establish a routine that respects their child's sleep needs--and then follow it.

While it may seem obvious, let me add that the weekend is not a good reason for changing the sleep routine of a young child.  It is too much to expect most children to go to bed easily and fall asleep promptly at 8pm Monday through Thursday, and then stay up until 10pm on Friday and Saturday; and then shift back to an earlier bedtime again on Sunday night.

Yes, teenagers do this all the time, and adults often do it as well. But, maybe because the young child is changing so rapidly in so many ways--motor skills, language skills, size, mobility, and strength--they really need the containment of daily and night-time routines that do not change very much or very often.

The other important sleep habit routine for children is the bedtime routine.  Why discuss how many stories to read at night at every bedtime?  Why negotiate every night how many songs, how many stuffed animals, how long a parent cuddles the child in bed?  It is so much easier to simply set a fair and friendly routine and follow it, follow it, follow it, every night.  Here again, the routine is just as helpful for parents by saving them from unnecessary wear and tear.  Following a predictable routine also sends signals to the child physiology to begin preparing the body for sleep by relaxing into the comfort of a predictable routine.

The next way a parent can support the child's sleep habits is to not take a child's protests and push back against the bedtime routine too seriously.  The parent's job is to establish and maintain the boundaries of the routine.  It is always the child's developmental task to test and experiment: "What happens if I complain?  What will he do if I try to bargain for a better deal?  What will she do if I say 'I'm scared!'"

The most frightened and insecure children are the ones who test the boundary and it breaks, or who challenge the routine and it disappears.  The child's testing and experimenting is an important part of their reassuring themselves, "Am I cared for by someone who is stronger than me?"  "Am I loved by someone who will do the right thing for me, even if I make it hard for them?"  Kids need to test boundaries.  Parents need to uphold them.

So, in practice, if a child says, "I'm not tired!" the parent can say, "I understand, would you like to look at books in bed for a while longer?"  If a child gets out of bed and tries to get attention or special services, the parent can "pretend" that the child isn't there by not directly looking at or speaking to the child.  This is more effective, by the way, if you turn off most lights and all music or tv, and be as absolutely boring as can be.  Your child may fall asleep on the floor or the sofa, but no big deal.  Children quickly figure out that a soft and warm bed is a much more comfortable place to be.  Finally, if a child says "I'm too scared! Come stay with me!" the parent can respond compassionately ("Yeah, it isn't a good feeling to feel scared, is it?") and then ask the child what they want to do about it.

This is actually a good opportunity to plant the seeds of resiliency in a child about how to deal with fear.  Your child might say, "I want you to stay with me!" but you can reply quite reasonably, "But, I'm not scared, so I don't need to stay with you.  Everyone feels scared sometimes--and everyone figures out a plan for what to do when they feel scared.  Since you are the one who might be feeling scared right now, maybe you should come up with a plan for how to deal with that..."  Oftentimes, a stuffed animal, a squirt of perfume on the pillow, or shooting a spray of "Monster Prevention" from a water sprayer will do the trick.  The more the child feels like it is THEIR plan that succeeds, the more the child will gain the sense that they are a person who can face and deal with fear successfully.