There’s a difference between “I don’t want to go to sleep” and “I can’t go to sleep” and the difference is insomnia. Speaking as a former sufferer, it’s something you never want your child to experience and definitely something you want to nip in the bud before it becomes a lifetime problem.
Given my own struggles, it wasn’t a surprise when I first heard those words from my daughter. Tossing and turning, she uttered what I experienced for years, “I can’t go to sleep.” I remember lying there counting down the clock, calculating how many hours of sleep I would get IF I fell asleep now…or now…or even now only to fall asleep an hour or two before my alarm.
As a baby, she was a rockstar sleeper. She settled with hardly any fuss and slept through the night at 6 weeks old (or what counts as through the night to a sleep-deprived parent). But as her brain got busier and she started to think/worry/anticipate things, she fell into the same pattern of insomnia I experienced where worrying about not falling asleep kept her awake as much as anything else.
How to Help Your Kids Overcome Insomnia
Speaking as a former sufferer and a parent of a child with similar struggles, this is what worked for us:
#1: Treat It as a Real Problem, Not a Bad Behavior — Trust when your child says, “I can’t go to sleep” that they are telling you the truth, THEIR TRUTH. Insomnia is different from your typical bedtime temper tantrum where a child springs out of bed wanting a snack or a drink of water or to change pyjamas. Remind them that relaxing in bed with their eyes closed as almost as good for their bodies as sleep.
#2: Get to the Root of the Problem — Talk to your child about why they are having trouble falling asleep. It could be a worry about something that happened at school that they haven’t yet told you. It could be fear of having nightmares. It could be fear about not being able to fall asleep. Be prepared to ask a lot of question because children don’t always understand what’s going on.
#3: Address Each Problem One-by-One — Work through each concern one-by-one, talking about why those worries are unfounded. In our daughter’s case, it could be a worry about an upcoming math test one day, and anticipation about potential bad dreams the next. Reassure them that you aren’t mad about them not going to sleep on time, and that you are here to help and support them.
#4: Be Ready With Sleep Tools — Pull out all your best parenting magic for those sleep problems that can’t be solved by talking.
- For worries, besides reassuring them that there’s nothing to worry about, blow the worry thoughts into a bubble and symbolically pop the bubble, releasing the worry.
- For nightmares, plant happy dream seeds in the form of imagination assignments. For example, ask your child imagine if the world was made of candy, what would everything be made of?
- For general tossing and turning, do a meditation where each body part falls asleep starting at the toes. It helps if you sound sleepy and yawn frequently for this exercise.
#5: Create a Bedtime Routine — Try as much as possible to stick to a bedtime routine (even with older children). That doesn’t necessarily mean going to bed at the same time every night (because that isn’t always possible), but once you figure out sleep tools that work, stick with them. So for us, it means giving our daughter a new “brain assignment” to think through while she falls asleep.
#6: Try Not to Create New Dependencies — Encourage your child to fall asleep on their own. Learning how to fall asleep independently is an important life skill so save the parent snuggling for absolute emergencies when they’re feeling sick or having more trouble than normal. Often all it takes is reassuring words from you, like “I’ll check back in 5 minutes” or “You’re almost asleep”, to help them relax and drift off.
Tell us about your experience with the bedtime battles in the comments below! We’d love to hear your stories and tips!