Helping Your Child Sleep Well During This Difficult Time
Many children are having trouble sleeping well right now. Here's how to help.
Posted May 08, 2020
Since I'm a behavioral sleep psychologist, some of you have been reaching out to me during this difficult period to ask how you can keep your children's sleep on track.
There are lots of reasons why sleep has become more difficult for your children, but three main ones come to mind: schedule changes, lack of physical activity, and higher levels of anxiety. Our schedules are no longer as consistent as they were. Bedtimes and rise times are often a moving target when there's no school bus coming. And homeschooling while juggling work and other responsibilities can make it hard to find the time to help your kids get the kind of physical activity that can help them sleep well at night. Finally, your children may be picking up on your own anxiety and may be asking for a bit more help than is typical to get to sleep at night.
What can we do about these issues?
Even though our schedules are no longer as predictable, try keeping your child’s rise time no more than an hour or two later than the typical time your child had to get up to go to school. This helps to keep your child’s body clock set (and helps your child get sleepy at his or her usual bedtime, too).
Next, try working out a daily family routine for this "new normal." This can take time, but you may find lots of inspiration on Pinterest or on your other favorite parenting sites. It's often best to set up activity blocks rather than setting exact times for each activity. For example, if you and your kids have a "make-your-own-English-muffin-pizza" lunch, this may take longer than a more typical lunch would because it's both an activity and a meal.
Finally, when bedtime rolls around in your family's schedule, try to keep your routine consistent every night. A simple routine would be: snack, bath, teeth, bathroom, two books. Try to start the bedtime routine at the same time each night, too, so that this doesn't become a nightly point of contention.
It's also very important to try to fit physical activity into your routine. Here are just some ideas for how to work this into your day. Do you have a rebounder (mini-trampoline) tucked away somewhere that you could move into a corner of the playroom? Could you have the kids do a relay race up and down the stairs a few times before you give them a meal or snack? Could you move the furniture around a bit so that they could have crab walk races or work their way around an obstacle course? How about throwing a dance party or playing a kid's yoga video? Maybe you could take a family bike ride around the block. You could also work with your neighbors to set up "window scavenger hunts" so that your kids can look for items in the windows of homes near you (teddy bears, shapes, letters, and so on) while they ride.
Your children may be asking for more help from you to fall asleep at bedtime due to the anxiety that we all feel right now. For children, this often happens in three ways:
- Your children might want you to lie down with them in their bed at night (or ask you to give them much longer back rubs, ask you to hold hands until they are asleep, or ask to sleep in your bed).
- Your child might want to talk about his or her concerns with you in bed at night.
- Your child might be making lots more of those extra requests that kids like to make when the bedtime routine is (supposed to be) over.
It's very important to offer support right now, of course, but it's also important to think through the type and amount of help you offer. Here's why. Kids who can fall asleep independently after a comforting bedtime routine of a reasonable length tend to be better sleepers than kids who cannot. If a child begins to need more of your presence at night to fall asleep or keeps calling you back for lots of extra requests, falling asleep may begin to take longer (because your child may be afraid that you'll leave to tend to something else before the job is done) and your child may begin to wake more often at night (because they may need to come and find you to get back to sleep again).
All parents know the joy of snuggling with a child. But if your children want you to lie down with them until they are completely asleep, think about whether you can provide support while still making sure that your child can make the transition into sleep mostly independently. To accomplish this, let's first review the concept of "sleep onset associations" (also called sleep crutches or sleep supports). These just refer to the things any of us need to fall asleep easily at night. You, for example, probably like to sleep on a certain side of the bed or like to have the TV on or off.
Children develop sleep crutches, too, and it's best if these sleep crutches are the independent type (snuggling with a teddy bear or special blanket and looking at a book until drowsy) and not the dependent type (needing lots of parental help to fall asleep). How can you help your children settle themselves to sleep at night more independently and without quite as much hands-on parental help? Try concluding the bedtime routine with some reading time together in your child's bed, and then giving them a final hug and kiss. Then, allow your child to read, look at a picture book, draw, or play quietly with a small, safe toy in bed by the light of soft bedside lamp until he or she is drowsy enough to fall asleep independently. If one of your children is having a particularly difficult time, you could also sit in the doorway reading your own book while he or she settles.
If your child wants to talk about his or her concerns with you in bed at night, you will, of course, want to offer time for this, but it's not a good idea to do this at bedtime in their beds. You don't want to associate anxious thoughts and difficult conversations with the place where they relax and sleep. Try to have these talks well before bedtime and in another room, if possible.
To address these concerns in a constructive way in the daytime, try the two very useful concepts of a "worry jar" (a jar to collect pieces of paper on which children have written their worries) and "worry time" (a half-hour block of time set aside each day to explore these worries). If there is extra time left in the half-hour after you discuss your child's concerns, use the rest of the time for a fun one-on-one activity with your child. Worry jars and worry time can help keep kids from spending too much time each day focusing on their fears and can help keep your child's bed associated only with positive things.
If your child is making lots more extra requests after the bedtime routine is over, try using bedtime tickets for this. Bedtime tickets are a great way to set limits at bedtime in a way that still lets kids feel like they have some control, but that keeps you from granting so many requests that your child loses out on valuable sleep.
Sleep well, be well
These are difficult times, but keeping your child's sleep on track may make all of this just a bit easier. Wishing you and yours good health and good sleep!