Sleep tips for anxious children
This is one of the most common questions I get asked on my Facebook page. Parents are desperate to help their children get to sleep. It seems to be a very common problem, perhaps indicative of our society today?
I asked Monique Phipps, The Nourished Psychologist to share with us her expert tips on settling anxious children, naturally.
Having a child that won’t go to sleep can be frustrating and exhausting, especially at the time of night when all you want to do is sit on the couch with a cup of tea.
When a child is anxious we need to find ways to help them feel safe but also to empower them to feel confident that they can manage on their own (whether it is going to sleep or any other issues). What we don’t want to happen is to teach your child that the only way they can go to sleep is with your help. This is not useful for you or your child. So we need strategies that are both gentle in terms of making the child feel ok and firm in terms of setting boundaries about what you will and won’t do.
If you suspect that anxiety is the reason then there are several things that you can try…
♥ Check for intolerances.
There are many food additives and intolerances that can cause both anxiety and difficulty sleeping. My first step would be to eliminate all harmful food additives from their diet (click here for a list of additives to avoid) and see if this helps at all. Intolerances to substances such as amines, salicylates, glutamates (substances found naturally in foods), gluten, soy, dairy and even chocolate can impact on brain chemistry and lead to anxiety. If you have cut out the additives and tried some of the following techniques and are not seeing any improvement, have a look at the Food Intolerance Network website for some information about the failsafe diet.
♥ Establish a routine.
Children function best when they know what to expect and what is coming next. This helps them to feel secure. Design an evening and bedtime routine that works for your family but make sure it includes a gradual wind down in energy levels and predictable steps e.g. dinner, bath, brush teeth, story, toilet, bed. Try to stick to this routine whenever possible. Have a special routine once your child is in bed but make it time limited and specific. This might be a short relaxation, a song or poem, a specific number of pats or strokes on their back, counting to a certain number or a specific routine of cuddles and kisses. Make sure the child knows when it is going to end. Saying I will pat your back or I will sit with you for a while with no actual ending can make your child feel anxious about when it will end and what is expected of them.
♥ Talk to your kids.
If you haven’t already done so, try asking your child what is making it hard for them to sleep and if they have any ideas about how to help them sleep better. It might be as simple as a nightlight, a special toy or dream catcher. Let the child sleep with extra pillows around them to make them feel safe or allow any reasonable suggestion from them. Lights on are not great for a good night sleep so you might need to phase this out over time. Your child might come up with a great creative idea and having solved the problem on their own will help with confidence.
♥ Gradual withdrawal.
If you have found yourself having to sit or lie with your child to get them to go to sleep then this is a nice gentle option to try. It basically involves gradually moving further away from your child until they are going to sleep without you in the room. It can be used with any age group. Start by explaining to your child exactly what is going to happen and why. The first night, start by moving only a tiny bit away e.g. sit up rather than lying next to them. Continue with this until they are falling asleep without distress (it can take a few nights). Gradually move further away (to the end of the bed, sitting on the floor, moving towards the door, at the door, just outside the door). Do this as quickly or slowly as needed for your child but be firm and stick with your position. You can reassure with words (or a brief touch if you are still close enough) and praise them for being brave and doing such a good job. If your child becomes hysterical you can move back to the previous spot until they calm down and then move back again. We want them to feel safe and confident.
Another option is to explain to your child that you will leave the room for a few moments but will check on them frequently. Come back into the room after a short period and give them a kiss, an I love you or praise for doing so well (quickly and quietly as we want them to go to sleep). Gradually extend the length of time between visits as they become more confident. Always return if you say you will. We want them to feel safe and secure.
♥ Externalizing the problem.
I love this strategy! Discuss the anxiety as something separate from the child. Let them name it or draw a picture of it. Make up a story about how the ‘night time creepies’ love to make us feel bad and worry that we can’t sleep on our own. That they grow big and strong when we give in to them but shrink and get weak if we don’t listen to them (be creative!). Discuss ways to fight the problem and make it shrink right down to nothing. Make sure that the solution is always something that your child can do and is sustainable (these can include the techniques above). We want to empower them not reinforce the idea that they need you to fall asleep.
These techniques can be used on their own or in combination. You know your child and what will work for you and your family. If you commit to trying something make sure you stick it out for at least 2 weeks before you decide that it is not going to work. None of these strategies involve leaving a child to cry or to be too distressed.
Finally, if your child is prone to anxiety, limit exposure to things that will fuel fear. This includes the news and scary stories or movies (my 6 year old cannot handle the wicked queen in Snow White!). If none of these ideas help consider an elimination diet and/or seeking help from a qualified clinical psychologist. Click here for info on how to find one.