You’ve had a long day at work, caring for your kids, or however you spend your busy days. You’ve eaten dinner, finally get everyone in bed, and settle in for your favorite Netflix show and a moment of peace, when a little voice emerges from the hall calling your name in distress. Maybe instead you have a child that tricks you into thinking you’re home free, then sneaks into your bed in the middle of the night. Kids having trouble sleeping is an all too common occurrence that can be very stressful for both the child and their parents.
What it comes down to is that your child is feeling some sort of distress or anxiety and they don’t feel confident that they can handle it on their own. Maybe they are worrying that they won’t be able to fall asleep, are scared that something bad will happen to them or you, or are worrying about school. Whatever it is, they are losing sleep, you are losing sleep, everyone wakes up tired and cranky the next day, and we rinse and repeat. Exhausting, right?
Of course, if we’re talking about this, that means that there is hope and that things can get better! Here are a couple (of many) different strategies that you can try to help you and your child have a better night of rest and help your kids feel more confident in their ability to manage their own distress.
Create a Sleep Routine
It is often helpful to have around 30 minutes of “wind down” time prior to bedtime, which allows for your child’s body and mind to down-regulate from the day. It’s often best to try to avoid caffeine, high-energy activities, large meals, and screen-time in this window of time before bed. Having a routine that you and your child go through each dayis helpful in creating that trigger or association that it is time to sleep. It also removes some of the chaos or distress that they might feel around bedtime so that they know what to expect and feel more in control.
This routine can be a mix of daily necessities (i.e. brush teeth, pajamas, etc.) and calming activities (i.e. reading, bed-time song, etc.). It might even be nice to have a checklist that your child can physically mark as you go. Note: once your child gets comfortable with the routine and sleeping on their own, it can then be helpful to intentionally disrupt the sleep routine so that they can be more flexible when unexpected changes arise.
Create a “Sleep Kit”
Your child is feeling distressed and are looking for ways to soothe. Having a bag or box of things in their bed or room that helps them do this on their own can be very comforting and enables them to regulate their distress without needing to rely on you. Some examples of things that can go in the sleep kit are:
- Photo of your family
- Favorite blanket or stuffed animal for physical comfort
- Stress ball
- Something that smells like their parents (i.e. article of clothing, spray of perfume/cologne)
- Calming book or book on tape
- Calming music
- A guided child meditation
Ignore as Much as You Can
I know. This sounds so counterintuitive. As a parent, you want to help your child and let them know that you’re there for them in their time of need. However, in this case, they are seeking your reassurance and by going to their rescue you are reinforcing the idea that they cannot handle things on their own.
Let your child know that you will not be answering them when they call for you unless it is an emergency (you and your child can decide on what classifies) and express confidence in their ability to do it on their own. They almost always eventually run out of steam, realize you’re not coming, and learn to rely on the skills that they have. After seeing that they can sleep without you, they will feel more confident, not only in sleep, but in other situations as well.
Use “Sleep Tickets”
If you have a child that has trouble sleeping every night, leaving them to cope on their own right away could result in them feeling abandoned and even more scared. It is sometimes best to slowly ease them in to independent sleep. A fun way to do this is to create “sleep tickets” with your child. You can buy, print, or make something that looks like or can operate as a ticket, like you would use for a ride or movie.
Let your child know that they can use these tickets at night when they are feeling distressed in exchange for your help. Each week (or whatever pace your child is moving at), remove a ticket. Then the child gets to decide whether or not to use their tickets on which days. No ticket, no parent (in case it’s an emergency, of course). Eventually, they will be down to zero tickets and won’t even be asking for them.
Allow your children to track the days that they sleep successfully on their own. I like to print out a calendar and use stickers. Jointly make a weekly goal of how many days they want to work towards and a reward for if and when they complete it.