You may have thought that you would be finished putting your kids to sleep once they emerged from the pre-school years. Think again! The reality is that even school-age children often need to be settled to sleep. This age group suffers from various sleep challenges like excess energy and difficulty winding down or over-excitement, or anxiety or other troubled emotions. Many kids cannot fall asleep, others sleep fitfully and others wake several times a night. And given that the responsibilities of being a student require that kids are not just physically awake but are also mentally alert during the day, parents will want to help their kids sleep well at night. A good night’s rest is important to academic success. Parents can do much to help their youngsters achieve this goal.
In this article, we will discuss some tips and strategies parents can use to help school-age children fall asleep. We will start off by discussing what might be preventing your child from getting a good night’s sleep.
Possible deterrents to sleep include:
Being too hot or too cold can interfere with sleep. An environment that is too noisy may also cause sleep problems for some adults and children. Babies can’t tell you about their comfort levels, unfortunately. When they cry, however, you might try adjusting their blankets or clothing to see if it makes a difference. Opening or closing a window, adjusting lights, shutting or opening the door – any of these environmental changes might make a positive difference.
Deflated and Elated Emotions
Depressing and troubling situations like death in the family, or very good news like winning the lottery (or another exciting development), makes the body produce chemistry that may linger beyond the time we need at which we normally go to sleep. We only need to settle this chemistry back to normal in order to put both the mind and the body to rest and eventually enter the state of sleep. Babies who’ve had an unusually active day may be more alert at night even though parents may think that they should be more exhausted than usual. Similarly, children may have trouble settling down after a particularly exciting day at the amusement part. Teenagers who are prone to experience strong emotions relating to their social lives may also have trouble settling down; too much chemistry is running through their bodies. Parents going through stress or trauma inevitably have sleeping challenges, as do those who experience tremendously positive events. Most of these kinds of sleep issues are temporary.
If a noisy mind, emotional stress, or agitated emotions are what’s keeping your child (or yourself) up at night, you may wish to consider Bach Flower Remedies. Try “Rescue Sleep” – a mixture of Bach Remedies available at health food stores and online, consult a Bach practitioner for an individually tailored remedy, or learn more about Bach Flowers on this site. Another fast and effective intervention for emotional stress is EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. You can learn this technique yourself from Internet resources and books or you can consult a therapist who uses this technique in the clinical setting. You can treat your child with it before bedtime, spending only a couple of minutes to release anxiety and stress or, you can teach an older child how to use the technique independently. Stress that doesn’t respond to self-help can be addressed effectively by a mental health professional.
Change in Sleeping Pattern
Our sleeping pattern is determined by our daily routine. As we normally sleep at a certain time everyday, our body gets used to this pattern and eventually remind us to sleep at that particular time, the same way we get hungry during lunch or dinner time. It does this by producing sleep hormones. When we suddenly try to change our time of sleep, we find it hard because our body is not used to producing sleep hormones at that time. When you change your child’s sleep time (as in the seasonal changing of the clock) be prepared for a week or so of poor sleep. Similarly, when you remove your toddler’s nap time, or go on vacation – expect disrupted sleep patterns. When the new pattern is established, sleep will be restored.
Change in Environment
Just as the body is affected by sleeping routine, it gets used to certain sleep settings. When we switch beds or when we put the lights on when we’re used to sleeping with the lights out, our body takes time to adapt to this new setting. We’ll go through sleepless nights and days before our body gets used to the new environment. When you change sleep locations due to vacations and visits, expect sleep disruption. When you move to a new house or even change your room within your old one, expect some sleep disturbance for a couple of weeks. Children and adults are similarly affected. Be patient and wait for the body to adjust.
Substances like caffeine and nicotine, as well as certain medications with stimulating effects enhance the activity of the brain. Take chemicals into consideration when serving kids food in the evening (cut down on sugar, caffeine, food colorings and highly processed snacks).
In the hour before bedtime, wild behavior, intense exercise, scary or intense media and other sources of stimulation can make it hard for kids and teens to settle down. It’s best to use that pre-sleep hour for calming the body and mind, rather than rousing it up!
Strategies for promoting sleep include:
Change the Bedtime
“Bedtime” is the time at which a person is tired enough to go to sleep. If you’ve set a 7:30p.m. bedtime for your child who isn’t sleepy until 9, then consider the possibility that you’ve set the wrong bedtime. Not all kids need the same amount of sleep. Some children, like some adults, can get by well on fewer hours than you might think is normal. Maybe you thought that every kid needs 9 hours sleep, but it turns out that YOUR child only needs 7! If your child can get up in the morning fairly easily and function well at school all day and maintain a decent mood until the evening, then he or she is getting enough sleep. But what if your child ISN’T doing well on just 7 hours, but has to get up for school on time anyways and still isn’t tired at the time that would allow him or her to get those important extra hours of sleep? In other words, what if your child does need 8 or 9 hours sleep but is only getting 7? If this is the case, you haven’t set the bedtime too early. You need to find a way to help the child feel more tired at the right time.
You can Increase the Child’s Sleepiness
Some parents find that they can “tire their child out” by making sure the youngster has had plenty of fresh air and exercise in the daytime. Although this doesn’t work for every kid, it might work for yours – so give it a try. Encourage your older child to do sports, dance or other forms of exercise after school each day. Take your younger child to the park if possible, or for swimming lessons, skating lessons, karate or other active sports or physical activities. Try to arrange outdoor time – walking to and from school or friends or lessons. Try not to drive the child everywhere – let him or her walk or bike instead.
Teach Your Child to Relax and Wind Down for Sleep
To help ready a child for sleep, reduce stimulation in the half hour or hour before bedtime. Help the child turn his or her attention away from the activities of the day toward a quieting down, readying for sleep focus. You can teach the child (or have someone else teach the child – like a yoga teacher or a psychological practitioner) how to use the breath to induce deep relaxation and restfulness. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response is one excellent breathing tool that is so simple even very young children can use it and so effective that it helps people of all ages learn to deeply relax and fall asleep. The technique involves breathing normally, but on the “out” breath, think the number “one.” That’s all there is to it. Yet breathing this way for a few minutes, alters all the rhythms of the body and mind and settles them into patterns conducive to profound relaxation or sleep.
Try Natural Sleep Aids
There is a reason why parents give their kids milk before going to bed. Milk has a very calming effect on a drinker, and taking it before going to sleep can help facilitate some zzz’s. You may also consider natural herbs that are known for helping people get a good night’s rest. There are many herbal preparations (teas, lollipops, syrups) that are safe and healthy for kids. A special blend with sedative properties can be prepared by a professional herbalist or you might be able to find a pre-mixed blend in your local health-food store or on-line. The more days the herb is used, the stronger its effects become. Sometimes the herb is to be taken in the evening to help the child to unwind, and sometimes the herb is taken during the day, to help the entire nervous system become more calm and settled, which will facilitate normal bedtime sleepiness in the evening. Consult a herbalist to learn about which herbs are appropriate for children or teens and which ones should be avoided. Learn about dosage and safety issues.
Nutritional supplements can have similar effects. Some feeds are sedative and calming in nature and can even induce fatigue. Arrange a consultation with a holistic nutritionist or dietician who may be able to guide you. Naturopaths may also be able to advise you on the selection of foods and nutritional supplements that can help calm and settle the child or teen for sleep. Similarly, homeopaths, acupuncturists, Bach Flower practitioners and other types of alternative healers may be able to offer interventions that can improve your child’s circadian rhythms (sleep cycle), or help relax an overactive body or mind.
Consult a Doctor
Sometimes a doctor will prescribe melatonin to help the child experience fatigue at the right time. If the child’s wakefulness is caused by ADHD, medications can be altered or added to induce sleepiness. Other physical and mental health conditions that cause the child to be hyperalert can also be addressed with medication.
Create a “Parking Bay” for Nightly Concerns
There are occasions when kids have trouble sleeping because they have so many worries about the next day. If this is the case, parents can help their child by starting a ritual of listing down all these worries before going to bed. Create a pact: once a concern is listed on paper or on a white board, it means that it is to be temporarily set aside until the next day. This way your child gets to unload from their mind all the things that are bothering them before going to bed. However, after writing down worries, be sure to write down some positive thoughts, memories of the day and things to look forward to. You want to help the brain go to sleep peacefully and happily.
Set a Schedule
You know how kids are with their assignments; if you leave your child to accomplish their homework when they want to, they will play all afternoon and evening, and then try to finish their assignments way into the night! If you want your school-age child to sleep on time, set a regular time for homework and a regular time — with justified limitations — for their play. If kids are conditioned from an early age that the day ends at bed time, then they are less likely to stay up well into the night. Make the transition to bedtime with a period of quiet time – bathing, stretching, reading in bed. Teach your child a few yoga postures and breathing patterns to dispell stress and physical tension.
Be Strict about Lights Out Policy
Lastly, one effective way parents can get their children to sleep on time is to implement a daily lights out policy at a reasonable bed time. Lights outs should include no computer or TV time after bedtime. In a house of parents and teens, everyone may go to bed at the same time – or not!. However, when there are younger kids in the family, there will always be several different bedtimes going on. As each person hits their bedtime zone, everything must quiet down around them. The quiet and stillness itself is a cue to the brain to settle down and get ready for sleep.
Consult a Mental Health Professional
If you have done all you can to help your child establish good sleep habits but your child is still having trouble falling asleep, then make an appointment with a mental health professional who can guide you further.