In such a worrying climate it will be no surprise that your children, just like you, may also be feeling anxious and fearful. Often these fears surface at bedtime when the day is over and there are no distractions to divert their thoughts. They may struggle to go to sleep and seek comfort and reassurance from you at bedtime. Often reappearing by your side with reasons why they can’t sleep. Then falling asleep considerably past their usual bedtime….
Anxiety and Sleep
Anxiety is a natural response to a stressful event. It was essential for survival when we lived in the wild. Our fight or flight mechanism helped us to run away from animals who wanted to eat us. But we now live in a modern world and have very little need for this response. The only problem is our bodies find it hard to differentiate between a real or a perceived danger; being worried or anxious at bedtime can trigger this stress response in our bodies, triggering our sympathetic nervous system.
Unsurprisingly if your body thinks you’re about to be chased by a tiger the last thing you will be able to do is sleep!
What causes worries or anxiety at bedtime?
There are numerous causes of anxiety in children that can impact negatively on their sleep. These include long term unresolved sleep issues, over thinking or over worrying, nightmares, fear of the dark and monsters, starting nursery or school, family breakdowns and bereavements.
Older school aged children who struggle to sleep are often perfectionists and academic high achievers. They find themselves in a vicious cycle where they worry about how lack of sleep will affect their work, which stops them falling asleep and in turn leads to negative thoughts or even fears about sleep itself.
A typical bedtime
Children with anxiety at bedtime usually struggle to fall asleep and can lie awake for hours. They often reappear numerous times in the evening with excuses such as being hungry, thirsty, too hot, to cold or needling the toilet. You take them back to bed, but in no time at all they are back with more excuses. This process happens night after night leading to cross and stressed parents and an even more anxious child; you all dread bedtime!
You eventually find yourself getting into your child’s bed just to get them to sleep and then in the night they wake and seek you out again to help them get back to sleep. The perfect recipe for a tired and stressed family!
Have a stress free bedtime that helps your child sleep well
The good news is there are simple steps you can take to help your child settle to sleep calmly and sleep well, taking the stress out of bedtime.
Start the bedtime routine:
About an hour before your child goes to sleep have quiet time. Tidy away the toys and turn off all screens. Research has shown light from computers, iPads etc. can interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
This is the time to set aside 10 to 15 minutes of one-to-one time with your child. Ensure you put your phone away and make sure you have nothing else you need to do at this point so you can give your child your undivided attention. At Millpond we often call this “Talking Time”. This will give your child the space to discuss any worries or fears they may have, the day just been or the day ahead and just as importantly means they are less likely to need to bring them up just before you say goodnight.
Get your routine right so your child settles to sleep calmly and happily.
Initially focus the bedtime routine around the time your child naturally falls asleep; even if this seems late.
For example if your child usually falls asleep at 10.00 pm start your routine at 9.15 pm. This way you are allowing 30 minutes for the routine and 15 minutes for them to fall asleep.
Carry out the same series of steps every night – make this routine your bedtime ritual. Having a regular routine means your child’s body will start to prepare for sleep as soon as you start this process.
If your child is falling asleep well in 15 minutes, after a few nights, start your bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier. Repeat this pattern, slowly advancing the start time of your routine until you reach the time that works best for your child.
Have a warm bath.
Have a warm, relaxing bath lasting no longer than 10 minutes. Keeping the bath to a maximum of 10 minutes means bath time doesn’t become a stimulating play time. The added bonus is coming out of the warm water allows the body to cool quickly triggering the sleep hormone melatonin.
Then go straight into your child’s bedroom; going back into the living area at this time will lose the focus and magic of the routine.
Dim the lights.
Pre-dim the lights in their bedroom, as this will also help with melatonin production.
Dress for bed.
Have their night clothes ready for their return from the bathroom so they can quickly get dressed and climb into bed.
It’s time for a story.
Even if your child can read to themselves, read a quiet almost boring story and have a cuddle and kiss goodnight then tuck them in with their favourite soft toy so they are warm and cosy.
Now that they’re drowsy, leave the bedroom so that they learn to fall asleep independently.
In the morning let the bright light in to signal to the body to wake up and to suppress the sleep hormone melatonin.
Mandy Gurney is the founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic and has been advising on baby, toddler and school aged child sleep issues for approaching thirty years. She is a qualified nurse, midwife and health visitor.