Many families I work with list sleep troubles high on their priority list, and for good reason. Lack of sleep can exacerbate issues with mental health functioning, especially in children who struggle with depression, anxiety, or ADHD. Chronic sleep problems can increase irritability, decrease ability to focus, reduce frustration tolerance, and increase acting-out behaviors. The following steps can increase the chances that your child will develop healthier sleep patterns:
1.) Develop a consistent bedtime and nightly routine. For young children, a routine might include a warm bath, speaking calmly and quietly, applying lotion after drying, dressing the child in comfortable pajamas, family reading time, singing lullabies or listening to calming music, and rocking to help the child wind down before bed. As children grow, parents will typically not be as involved with specific routines; however, you can still prepare your child 30-45’ before bedtime so that he or she can wind down, calm the body, and prepare for rest. Whatever the age of the child, it is important to restrict stimulating activities such as screen time or active/rough play. When setting your child’s bedtime and wake-up time, remember to keep in mind your doctor’s recommendation regarding the number of hours of sleep your child needs each night.
2.) Tap into what soothes your child during the routine. Observe what your child is most drawn to. Does your child appear calm when listening to soft music? Does she seem peaceful when listening to you read her a book or when she’s reading a book to herself? Does he look relaxed when hugging or petting a stuffed animal or blanket? Incorporate these activities into your nightly wind-down routine and include him in the discussion. Ask your child what he likes to do that makes him feel calm and relaxed (and again, screen time doesn’t count!).
3.) Harness the power of imagination. Tap into your child’s wonderful capacity for creativity! Why leave it up to counting boring sheep, you might create a movie in your mind or imagine what you’d like to dream about?. Perhaps your child would like to build a secret calm place only they can access in their mind? While we often equate using our imaginations with active play rather than rest and tranquility, our imaginations are wonderful tools for quieting worries and allowing the body to calm down. When we take charge of our thoughts and direct them to focus on positive or peaceful topics, our worries often fade, because our brains have a hard time focusing on more than one thought in a given moment. By utilizing our own creativity we can free ourselves from our worries, even if it is only long enough to drift off to sleep.
4.) If your child tends towards anxiety that keeps him awake, allow for “worry time” in the bedtime routine. When your child shares worries with you, listen but do not rush to dismiss their concerns with an “it will be ok” or “you don’t need to worry about that.” Worries need to be acknowledged and they don’t respond well to dismissal. Try rewording what you heard, for example: “sounds like you had a tough day and you really hope tomorrow is better” or; “you’re so worried about that test, you studied but you are still thinking about it.” Alternatively, try helping your child write down their worries. Many children benefit from writing a list of worries and then tucking it into a drawer before bedtime. A “worry time” routine can help children to put their worries aside so that they can sleep more soundly.
Establishing good sleep hygiene is often difficult, given busy schedules and often complicated family dynamics. Nevertheless, the payoff in better mood, behavior, and academic performance can be excellent. Even if you are able to implement one or two of the above ideas on a reasonably consistent basis, you may find your child is happier, healthier, more alert, and better behaved.