If you’re struggling to get your little human to commit to some serious pillow time, you’re not alone. Few families get through childhood without some sort of disruption at bedtime. The good news is that as the parent or grown up who loves them, there are simple, powerful things you can do to help your little dreamers (and you!) find a more peaceful sleep.
There are many reasons for the bedtime blues. Some kids will anticipate bad dreams or nightmares. Other kids will have a fear of the dark. Others will miss being away from you or feel unsafe on their own, and for some little powerhouses, there’s just too much to do to spend time sleeping.
Your little dream jockeys will respond to different things in different ways. Kids are beautifully unique, so it might take some experimentation to find a strategy or a bedtime ritual that works best. Here are some ideas to keep in your bedtime toolkit.
How to Get Children to Sleep.
Leaving distressed kids alone at night. Something to think about …
In many other cultures (if not most) aside from the Western one, small children don’t sleep alone. Consider this from an evolutionary perspective. A long time ago when our ancestors were at the mercy of the environment, they lived, slept and ate together as a way to protect everyone in the tribe. Leaving a child alone at night would have surely made them vulnerable to being attacked, stolen or dinner.
Fast forward several thousand years and although there are no sabre tooth tigers licking their lips, we’re still wired to equate closeness with safety.
That doesn’t mean it’s that way for every child. Some kids are perfectly fine with being tucked up tight and kissed goodnight and are happy to fall asleep on their own. For others, the tendency to be scared of potential threat remains. That’s the thing about evolution, the wiring stays long after its purpose has gone.
The capacity for reason and problem solving lies in the frontal lobes of the brain. This is the part that helps us to process raw emotions and it doesn’t start to mature until about 5-6 years old. That doesn’t mean that kids at that age will immediately feel okay with being left alone. We’re all works in progress and like any important building work, sometimes the brain runs to its own schedule. In fact, the frontal parts of the brain won’t be fully developed until about 24. Don’t worry though – that doesn’t mean your little non-sleepers will want to be sleeping in your bed up to then. Promise. It also doesn’t mean you can’t leave them alone. The idea is to not leave them distressed. Here are some ways to make bedtimes happier for everyone.
Give them some control.
Kids are adults in training, and as part of that training they will experiment with their independence from you. You’ll say no, they’ll say yes. You’ll say the blue cup, they’ll say the yellow cup – so you’ll say ‘yep’ to the yellow, then they’ll want the blue – which will have since been claimed by a sibling who is protecting it as though it was an endangered species. If the struggle for independence happens at bedtime, may the force be with you. It’s no secret that the likelihood of the struggle seems to increase with your need to put a fullstop on the day. They are little, but they are mighty! As much as we want to support their flourishing independence, having this play out at bedtime rarely ends well for any adult. Kiddos seem to have that one stitched. Even if it’s an argument we win, the trail to adulthood is littered with exhausted, bleary-eyed grown-up resistance fighters who ‘won’ the bedtime battle. Eventually. Try to nip this by giving them other ways to take control – let them choose their pyjamas, the story, the toy that gets to travel with them by bed to dreamland. Give them control over the little things so they will (hopefully) have less need to fight you on the big one.
One of THE most important things – a consistent bedtime.
The research on this is conclusive – one of the most important things for taking the struggle out of bedtime is having a consistent bedtime routine.
‘It doesn’t matter if you are a parent of a young child in the United States, India or China, having a bedtime routine makes a difference.’ – Jodi Mindell, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph University and associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
A study that stretched across 14 countries study has found that a regular bedtime and a consistent nightly routine improves sleep in children. The more consistency in the routine, the greater the positive impact on sleep. Children with a regular bedtime routine have earlier bedtimes, fall asleep quicker, wake less during the night and sleep for longer. They also have less problems generally and fewer behaviour problems during the day. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, bedtime routines involve a set combination of happy, calming activities before bed. Activities might include a warm, peaceful bath, brushing teeth and reading a story.
‘For each additional night that a family is able to institute a bedtime routine, and the younger that the routine is started, the better their child is likely to sleep … It’s like other healthy practices: Doing something just one day a week is good, doing it for three days a week is better, and doing it every day is best.’ – Jodi Mindell, PhD.
Don’t be there while they fall asleep.
There is so much research on this. If only it was easier said than done! Kids who fall asleep consistently with a parent in the room will be more likely to wake up during the night and sleep for less than six hours consecutively. Falling asleep with an adult beside them seems to interfere with the capacity to self-soothe and develop a sense of security, which may create a vulnerability to bad dreams. We all cycle through sleep during the night, but we tend to put ourselves back to sleep without waking up completely. If you’re there when they fall asleep, they’ll be more likely to look for you when they wake up and panic when you aren’t there. If leaving them at bedtime is feels as easy as nuclear physics (it’s not by the way – nuclear physics is way easier – nobody is brought to their knees by nuclear physics) here’s something to try …
With them, then away, then back again.
Stay with them until they settle – read a story, give them a cuddle, whatever your night-time ritual is. Let them know that you will be leaving for 1 minute (or 2 – whatever you think they can handle) and then you’ll be back for five. Make sure you come back when you say you’re going to. They might get quite upset at first until they are able to trust that you’ll be back. It’s okay – you’ll be coming back so they won’t be left to fall asleep distressed. Keep doing this and when it feels right, extend the time you’re away and decrease the time you’re with them. Eventually, you’ll end up with something like two minutes with them, 10 minutes away. At this point, you’ll probably find that they’re sound asleep the first time you go back. Be patient though, this can take time.
Help them to relax.
The more relaxed they are when you leave them, the more likely they’ll be to drift into a restful sleep. Breathing initiates the relaxation response, a process noted by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson as a response that automatically soothes the nervous system. When triggered, the relaxation response instantly sends out neurochemicals that neutralise the fight or flight response. This will decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower pulse rate, reduce the oxygen in the bloodstream and increase alpha brain waves, which are all associated with relaxation.
• Shhhh – it’s sleeping.
Find a soft toy pet that’s fairly lifelike. If you can find one that’s sleeping, that’s perfect – but it’s not important. Make sure it’s something friendly that they would be happy to have up against them. At bedtime when they’re ready to settle, nestle the soft toy against them and explain that it’s fallen asleep and that they have to try to keep the it asleep by breathing and moving very gently so as not to wake it up. The feeling of something against them, as they slow their movements and their breathing will help them ease gently into sleep that’s dreamy, relaxed and beautiful.
• A little friend to help.
Effective breathing comes from the belly, rather than the chest. A way to encourage this is by placing a soft toy on your child’s tummy and making sure it moves up and down. If their breathing is coming from their belly, the toy will move up and down, letting them know that their breathing is perfect.
Use a night light.
If it makes them feel better about being on their own, do it – anything that helps them to feel safe.
Or a fan.
Night noises can be scary! Their imaginations are wonderfully rich and in their world, nothing is impossible. The downside is that a noise as benign as a cat outside the window can unpack thoughts of intruders, burglars, aliens – anything. A fan will bring a soothing, soft hum to the room and help to drown out any unexpected noises that might keep them awake.
Correct any wrong information.
Misinformation (e.g. from television) has been found to feed a high proportion of night-time fears in children. One study reported that 88.98% of children attribute their fears to negative information they’ve picked up along the way. Other studies have reported the figure to be less but what we know is that it features in there somewhere. Just be aware of what your child is watching (the news can be the most frightening thing on television because it’s real) and talk to them about anything they’re scared about. If they see something on TV and they’re worried about it happening to them, point out how their circumstances are different. Finding the differences will help to loosen the association between what they’ve seen and their own circumstances.
The most common nighttime fear for children is fear of intruders. The position of the bed in the room can help to maximise feelings of safety and security.
Research has explored the preferred layout of a bedroom from an evolutionary perspective and has found that people prefer to sleep in a way that would theoretically maximise safety from potential intruders. There were no doors and windows way back when humans first came along, but there were caves and cave entrances. The study found that:
• If the room has a door and no window, people will prefer to sleep in a bed that allows them to see the door without having to move their heads very much. Try to avoid the door being behind the bed.
• If the bedroom has a window, people will prefer to sleep in a position that lets them to see the door and the window when their head is on the pillow.
• If it’s not possible to see both the door and the window at the same time, people will prefer to sleep so they can see the door.
• People prefer to sleep further away from the door (but still able to see the door). The assumption here is that the further they are away from the door, the more time they have to keep themselves safe from an intruder.
If bad dreams or nightmares are causing the trouble.
Night-time fears are extremely common for children, with one study reporting that 73.3% of children aged 4-12 are affected. About a quarter of kids will have at least one nightmare every week. One of the most common themes is the violation of their personal safety – kidnappers or burglars often have a starring role in bad dreams. Other common themes for kids are separation from people they care about, loss of loved ones, imaginary creatures, and being chased by a scary person or animal.
Explain where bad dreams come from.
Things are scariest when we don’t understand them. Kids can do amazing things with the right information, and explaining the physiology behind their bad dreams can go a long way towards empowering them. Here is an example of the words to use what you chat with them about it. It doesn’t all have to all happen in one conversation. Nobody knows your kids better than you, so adapt it to suit.
‘When you go to sleep, your brain stays switched on and keeps working hard to look after you. Here are some of the things it does:∗ it puts what you’ve learnt into your memory;∗ it works through the things you’ve been taught to make sure you understand them;∗ it sorts through your memories, or the things that have happened during the day to help you feel okay about them.
Dreaming is the way your brain sorts through your feelings to make sense of things for you. Your brain does this while you’re sleeping because during the day your brain is way too busy doing other things.
You dream in pictures because the words part of your brain takes a little nap (it works so hard during the day!) The other part of your brain that takes a little rest is the ‘sensible’ part that tells you what’s possible or impossible, sensible or completely ridiculous. When this part of your brain is asleep, anything is possible! There are absolutely no limits which is why you can dream of flying to the top of the world in your very own jet – rainbow coloured of course, with an indoor swimming pool, and your very own toy shop and rock stars who tell you funny jokes while they clean your room. There’s just nothing in the way to say, ‘Sheesh! Don’t be silly! That would never happen.’
Sometimes the information your brain has to sort through is stressful, confusing or scary and it might turn this information into a nightmare. Your brain doesn’t do this to upset you – it wants to look after you. Remember, it only has pictures to work with because the words part f your brain is asleep, and there’s nothing to tell it to calm down with the crazy stuff, because the sensible part of your brain is also taking a little break.
This is why it’s so important to talk to a parent or someone who cares about you about things that are upsetting or confusing for you. By doing this, your brain will have less to sort through at night-time, so there will be less chance of things getting turned into nightmares. Grown-ups are very good at listening. They practically invented it. They can help you to make sense of things and they’ll never think anything you have to say is silly or not important. Grown-ups were kids too once, so they’re very experienced at kid stuff (although kids will always be the experts).
Sorting through your feelings is just one reason people get nightmares. You might also get nightmares when you are sick or if you’ve heard or seen something scary on television, in a book or on the internet.
It’s important to understand that the panicked feeling you get when you wake up from a bad dream isn’t because something scary is going to happen. There’s a good reason for feeling scared after a nightmare and it’s because of a part of your brain called the amygdala. When people dream, the amygdala is really firing.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of your brain and its job is to keep you safe by letting you know that there might be trouble. It’s kind of like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. The amygdala does a brilliant job of keeping you safe, but sometimes it will send out a warning when there’s absolutely nothing to be scared of. It’s a do-er not a thinker, so it’s very good at warning you, but not very good at thinking about whether or not you actually need a warning. This is why you feel scared when you wake up from a nightmare.
When you feel scared, it will help to breathe deeply (because that settles down your amygdala), have a cuddle with someone who loves you and that scared feeling will soon go away. It can be hard to remember to do strong, steady breathing when you feel so scared, but don’t worry because I’ll be there to remind you. We’re a great team you and I and we’re going to sort these bad dreams out.
Choose your own adventure … or ending.
Dreams and nightmares come from their own thoughts, feelings and memories and because of this, we can change them if we want to. Harvard researchers have found that by practicing a different ending to the dream just before bedtime, the content of the dream during sleep can be changed. Spend about 10 minutes talking to your child about an alternative ending for their dream. Because the dreaming brain uses pictures, rather than words, talk to them a lot about the imagery – colours, size, images. It the bad dreams change, or if they can’t remember them have an ending that would be always safe – finding you and being scooped up into your arms, safe and sound. If the nightmare is a recurring one, practice the alternative dream ending each day by talking about it to build up its strength and vividness and the ease with which your sleeping child can call on it when they need to.
Help them make sense of their scary feelings.
If bad dreams leave your small human with big feelings, it’s a sign that the right hemisphere of the brain is dominating and disconnecting a little from the left. The memory of the feeling that’s leftover from a scary dream can be enough to cause trouble at bedtime. Here’s what happens … the left part of the brain uses language to make sense of experiences. It uses words to put the experience into logical sequences – this happened, then this happened, then this happened. While the left brain is ‘this is what happened‘, the right is ‘and this is what it means for me‘. It’s more dominant in images (which are the heartland of dreams) and feelings. When the right is dominant, and disconnected from the left, feelings might feel overwhelming. Things will always run smoother when there is a strong connection between the right and the left, so both sides of the brain can drive behaviour. The left loves language, so to help your child make sense of their big feelings, recruit the left side of their brain by putting word to their experience:
∗ First, acknowledge how scary bad dreams can be. This will help your child know that you get it … ‘Bad dreams can feel awful can’t they. I feel scared sometimes when I have bad dreams too.’
∗ Next – if your child is okay with it – ask him or her to describe the dream. Don’t force them though. If they want to talk to you about it, awesome – let them go for it. Otherwise, let it go.
∗ Confirm that your child understands that it’s a dream and it can’t hurt them – even though in the dream it feels like it can.
They’re giving you a little peek into their world.
All dreams are fuelled by your little person’s own thoughts and feelings. Exploring the dream with them, or listening to them while they describe it, can reveal wonderful insight to your child, and about your child, and give them a sense of control. Look for clues that might be telltale signs of their fears and vulnerabilities. This isn’t about interpreting their dreams, but about looking for feelings or issues that might be happening in real life and finding expression through their dreams.
Every dream warrior needs their special powerful things.
Kids are brilliant at using the line between reality and fantasy as a jump rope. This means that they have great capacity to take things from their waking world into their dreams. Here’s how that works:
∗ If they could take anything into their bad dream, what would it be? Something to fight off the baddies or dissolve them? Dissolver dust (called ‘glitter’ for short), might be just the trick. Maybe a monster trap? Something that was used in our home off and on for almost a decade was monster spray (see recipe and FAQs below). Perhaps an invisibility cloak (a small sheet) to hide from the baddies? Perhaps they need you (your photo under their pillow) or a magical fortress (ask them to draw it).
∗ Talk to them about how they will use their special ‘thing’. How does it make them feel? Strong? Safe? Powerful? Magical? This will help to strengthen the thought, experience and emotion to influence the content of their dream.
∗ Have them put their special thing under their pillow (if it’s safe), on their bedside table, or anywhere close by.
∗ Prime them before they go to sleep, by asking them to imagine themselves taking their special thing into the dream and using it.
Dream Monster Spray (or Shark Spray, or Ninja spray, or alien spray, or whatever is pushing its way into their dreams).
The idea of this is to use something build their feelings of safety. Clever, inquisitive monster slayers have been known to ask their share of questions, so here are some FAQ’s … just in case.
• Does this mean monsters are real?
Nope. No way. Absolutely not. Promise. There are no monsters but sometimes your mind can make them up. This will help settle your mind down and stop those scary things coming into your dreams.
• Where do you get it from?
You make it yourself. Here’s how. Get yourself a spray bottle and fill it about three-quarters with warm water. Now, add a few drops of lavender (or any other essential oil that’s known to be lovely (as in relaxing)). That’s it. Done. Easy as that.
• What do you do with it?
Spray it around your room. You don’t want to go nuts with it. Or maybe you do. But about 5 sprays should do it.
• That seems too simple. How do you know it works?
Because the scientists said so – they’ve done heaps of research into how your brain works. Have you ever met a scientist who didn’t know what they were talking about? Nope. Me neither.
• How does it work?
Two ways. First, it relaxes your brain – and a relaxed brain is a happy brain, which makes it more able to dream happy dreams. Second, dream monsters hate lavender. They can’t stand it actually. It makes them shrink down to nothing, but first it makes them (and little monster slayers) very sleepy. Dream monsters don’t like anything that smells nice but lavender is the one they hate the most.
• Will it give me muscles?
What? No. That’s what green peas and bananas are for. But don’t eat them together – that’s just gross.
• Will it make my hair shiny?
No. But sleep will.
• Do I still have to have a bath?
Wait. What? Yes of course you do.
Because dream monsters hate anything that smells nice but they hate nice-smelling humans most of all.
• What if I think of another important question?
Just ask a grown-up who loves you. They tend to know important stuff. They’re good like that. Otherwise they will find a scientist to ask.
And finally …
It’s not unusual for all kids to struggle with bedtime at different times throughout their childhood. There’s no one-size fits all and there’s no quick fix to taking the angst out of difficult bedtimes. With time, persistence and a well-stocked toolbox with proven strategies, your little humans – and you – can find the way to peaceful, struggle-free sleeps in no time.