Just the other day, I was interviewed by Dr. Mark Banschick about how to get young children to sleep even when it feels impossible! Our discussion was a good one so I wanted to share it here on my PT blog and offer it to anyone struggling with this challenge. Here it is:
From bed time stories to a warm glass of milk, it seems that restless children are as old as the monster under the bed.
Why is it so hard to get kids to sleep? To help answer this question, I asked Maureen Healy, child development and parenting expert at Growing Happy Kids (www.growinghappykids.com) who has helped countless parents get their kids to sleep.
(Mark): Why don't kids want to go to sleep?
(Maureen): Sometimes children are excited by the day's events or competitive with older siblings who stay up later. Other times young children are having nightmares and scared of sleeping all alone in their room. But I have to say, most kids when they are tired want to go to sleep and if they aren't sleeping - something is going on. This something may be a child who is anxious about a test tomorrow, or upset about being teased today. My suggestion is always to "check in" with your child and make sure there is nothing upsetting him that is preventing sleep.
(Mark): Sometimes not wanting to go to sleep is a symptom of something that needs to be dealt with and sometimes it's just a developmental moment that needs to be managed. This is a great point and one that parents need to be aware of.
(Mark): So all things are equal and there are no problems. What is your approach in getting kids to sleep?
(Maureen): First, I would make sure that a child's room helps them feel safe, secure and loved with their favorite things around them. This may mean photos of Mom or having a great big stuffed Teddy Bear that helps carry that "mom" energy with them when mom isn't there. Other things to help create a conducive environment include playing calming music like Tibetan Singing Bowl sounds that have been proven to calm a child's central nervous system, or place crystals in their room that are believed to have a calming effect on a child. Second, I would begin the getting ready for bed process at least 30 minutes before bedtime, which includes helping them wind down with soothing things like a warm bath and reading time. (Here is where we also remove things that excite children like sugary candy, video games, physical activity like jumping on a trampoline). Third, I create a regular routine as much as possible so that your son or daughter comes to expect their nightly music, reading time and perhaps lovingkindness meditation to help them get into a relaxed state of mind - free from any stressors of their day. Of course, this routine needs to work for you and your child but is important to help move them in the direction of peace and calmness.
(Mark): What I love about your approach is that it is very creative, playful and respectful of the child. You are also seeking to give the child tools to help him or her feel held, psychologically feel safe and not rejected or judged. You are not providing a prescription for every child but saying that parents know their children best and here are some suggestions to facilitate positive sleeping patterns.
(Mark): So what do you do when you do all that and your child still is yelling from the other room? Mom, can you tuck me in again?
(Maureen): This is an important question and there is no blanket answer. What I can tell you is that I am more inclined to build a child's skills of learning how to self-soothe and feel better when these scary feelings come up versus letting them "cry it out." I have taught kids how to use breathing techniques to become calmer, prayer to feel more at ease and visualizations, too. But in every parents' life there is moment when you need to be "positive and firm" because that is what your child needs - she needs to know she is loved, she is safe and that she needs to go to sleep. This also greatly helped by the parent that feels calm, can extend a sense of safety and calmness to her child and be the model of positive emotional health.
Maureen, thank you so much for your time and advice. Here is a summary of Maureen's strategies:
- Check-In with Child: Make sure they are not worried about something specific going on during the day (feeling anxious, being teased at school).
- Create Calming Space: Make their room a calm environment and ask what makes them feel relaxed (stuffed animals, perfume, photos, music, or a favorite book).
- Regular Routine: Routines promote a sense of stability and comfort while everything else is changing. Find a routine that starts at least 30 minutes before bedtime (teeth brushing, showering, and story time) and avoid excessive stimulation (sugar, physical activity, computer games).
- Build Self-Soothing Skills: If a child feels they have control over a situation, their anxiety will be lessened. Try teaching your child deep breathing exercises or other simple forms of meditation. Doing this this all by herself builds confidence. Consider adding this to the bedtime routine.
To learn more about Maureen Healy, please visit her organization: www.growinghappykids.com; follow her on twitter @mdhealy