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As adults we know what it feels like when we have a poor night’s sleep. We can wake up the next morning feeling like we don’t have energy, grumpy and can even experience “brain fog”. Children also are effected by poor sleep, particularly when poor sleep happens night after night.
Sleep Difficulties in Children
Poor sleep patterns in children can lead to increased irritability, behavioural problems, memory and learning difficulties. While there are different kinds of sleep difficulties, the two most common are sleep onset and sleep disturbance.
Sleep onset difficulties are where your child simply struggles to fall asleep. This can look like frequent calling out or “escape” attempts from the bedroom. Your child will be complaining that they just can’t fall asleep. In the more extreme cases, you and your child may end up arguing and in tears over their inability to settle. And all of this occurs at a time when both you and your child are naturally tired.
Sleep disturbances are where your child falls asleep but wakes up and finds it hard to resettle. For some children this can happen once a night, for other multiple times. In either instance, this causes difficulties for other family members (not just the child) as they go looking for you or siblings in the middle of the night.
Setting up Sleep Routines
A good place to start is to look at how they prepare for sleep. A sleep routine is all the routine actions we take on the way to putting our head on our pillow. We all have a sleep routine but some actions are more helpful than others.
A helpful sleep routine might look like:
- some quiet time (e.g. reading & drawing);
- laying out clothes for the next day;
- getting into PJs;
- brushing teeth and visiting the toilet;
- having 10-15 minutes with a parent reading a story together; and
- lights out.
Some habits are not going to promote good sleep. Try to avoid the following:
- Don’t let your child have sugary and caffeinated drinks before bedtime. Too much sugar and caffeine makes it hard for their bodies to wind down;
- Don’t let them take an electronic device to bed. The light that these devices emit gives the brain the message that’s its day-time, making it harder to fall asleep. Plus, the visual stimulation that comes with video games keeps the brain alert…the opposite of what it needs at bedtime;
- Don’t give in to repeated calls for drinks, cuddles and more stories. A gentle (but brief) reminder that you are near-by and that it’s bed time is all that’s needed. Giving lots of attention at bedtime, only helps to keep your child awake;
- No vigorous exercise for your child before bedtime. Exercise energises us…again the opposite of what we need to feel at bedtime; and
- Don’t spend too much time trying to settle the child (e.g. rocking or cuddling the child) when they can’t sleep. Aside from giving lots of attention, it may be stopping the child from learning self-soothing skills themselves and may actually keep them awake longer.
Some actions which are more likely to promote good sleeping in children, include:
- Making sure that there is sufficient quiet time in the routine…at least 20-30 minutes and putting this in at the start of the routine. Very few of us wind down in 5 minutes!
- Trying to incorporate a bath into the routine (for those children who like baths). A warm bath is an excellent way to relax the body. Be careful with showers though – they tend to refresh us and wake us up.
- Leaving nightlights on. Younger children in particular find this comforting and fortunately we are spoiled for choice in terms of brightness, colours and shapes.
- Reassure anxious children that you will come back during the night and check on them and that you are in the next room etc. This can help soothe any worries.
- Being consistent. Sleep routines take a while to establish.
Need more help with your child’s sleep?
The psychology team in the Centre can help with further assessment and strategies. Please call our Reception on 9274 7062 for more information.