Many of my clients struggle with falling asleep on their own and staying asleep throughout the night. The problem usually starts innocently as many young children are afraid to sleep alone, so a parent has to be with them every night until they fall asleep.
Unfortunately, some children don’t grow out of this phase, and by the time they are of school age (5 or 6 years old) and the parents want them to sleep independently throughout the night, they haven’t developed the habit of learning how to fall asleep on their own. When the parents start to implement changes to the sleep routine, the child’s fears, and anxiety increase resistance. The cycle of resistance, frustration, and exhaustion leads to the return of the old behavior; after all, a little sleep is better than no sleep.
5 Steps to help your child learn to fall asleep on their own:
- Resolve any parental/caretaker disagreements about the sleeping schedule. The parents need to present a united and consistent front to succeed.
- Have a family meeting to discuss the problem, identify the goal, and invite the child’s input on solving it together.
Your child needs to hear from you in a direct, calm, and loving voice that they need to sleep in their bed. Take the time to explain the reasons and benefits of a good night’s sleep and reinforce your belief in their ability to achieve this. Make sure they know that they are not punished, have done nothing wrong and that you all will work together to achieve this common goal. Ask for your child’s input and listen to their ideas without amplifying their anxiety or deviating from the plan.
- Develop a healthy bedtime routine and stick to it until it becomes a habit.
The bedtime ritual should be a time to unwind and slow down for everyone in the family. Having a predictable nightly schedule reassures the body and mind that it’s time to slow down and sleep. The routine should include a regular bedtime, no screens or stressful discussions at least 1 hour before bedtime, and “get ready -for bed steps” like brushing teeth, taking a bath, and selecting a bedtime book. Ensure that the child’s room is comfortable temperature-wise and that there are no bright lights and no screens or phones in the room. Make sure that your child has what they need so they won’t need to get up again. A glass of water, their favorite stuffy, tissues, etc.
Develop a goodnight ritual; I ask my clients to share their “top 3” of their day. This practice represses negative thoughts and engages our sense of gratitude for the good things we already had in our lives. Hugs, kisses, and goodnight.
- Present the bedtime rules and set clear boundaries. Communicate clearly to your child, what you expect, what is allowed, and what is not ok. Clear boundaries create predictability, a sense of control, and security which children need.
Dr. David O’Grady, a psychologist, has developed “The goodnight worry program “for bedtime fears, which can help parents and children reclaim their evening bedtime routine and get restful and good night’s sleep.
Here is a summary of how it works: Once Your child is in her bed, you kiss her goodnight, turn off the light and leave the room. In 10 minutes, you return to check up on her; if she is awake and a bit anxious, you provide a brief reassurance and leave the room, ignoring any protest. You return in 10 minutes and repeat the check-in until your child has fallen asleep.
- Talk about rewards and consequences
Consider providing appropriate rewards that can help your child develop a sense of achievement, stickers on a calendar or special treats. Rewards should not be too big as they can appear to be bribes.
Punishments do not work and are not effective; you can use your words to express disapproval, be brief, timely, and to the point.” I am not happy that you are out of your bed.”
Consider seeking professional help if you cannot achieve positive results after trying for several weeks or if the symptoms of anxiety and stress intensify.
At Treehouse Family Counseling Services, we support children, parents, and families to overcome challenges, and we create a safe space where healing takes place.