As the day ends and the evening begins, some parents are getting ready for a serious task. Not because they are preparing for a late shift at work, but because they are about to confront the battle of their children’s bedtime.
And we’re not talking about infants or toddlers. These are school-aged children who suffer from insomnia.
There are a number of symptoms of insomnia that overlap between children and adults, including difficulties in falling—or staying—asleep. To be diagnosed with insomnia, these difficulties must persist for at least three nights a week and last for at least three months.
Another key aspect of a sleep problem is that it's causing some kind of significant disruption to the child’s and family’s life—that the sleep problem affects normal functioning. Examples of this might include night times becoming unmanageable or very stressful (for the child and parent) or it might be that they are sleep deprived during the day and not coping well at school.
The key difference between insomnia in adults and children is that to be able to fall asleep or stay asleep, children often require “special conditions.” This usually means they need their parents nearby.
This might involve children needing a parent present in the bedroom to fall asleep, or that the child sleeps on a mattress on the parent’s bedroom floor. It might even mean the child sleeping in the parent’s bed—either from the beginning of the night, or when they wake up a few hours later.
There is no single cause of child sleep problems. But these children commonly share high levels of anxiety around bedtime. The other thing they often share is a fear of themselves or family members being harmed (by an intruder, for example), meaning they feel unsafe in their own bed at night time.
These worries make them hyper-vigilant to their surroundings. Any noise outside or bump in the night might be interpreted as a potential threat. Understandably, these children commonly seek reassurance from their parents.
The other common response is the parent sitting with their child until they fall asleep, or letting the child sleep in the parental bed. Sometimes this might even mean one parent ends up sleeping in the child’s bed as a result.
A Good Night’s Rest for EveryoneIf these scenarios sound familiar, you should know that you’re not alone—and that there is a solution. In recent years, there has been more research working out the best ways to help school-aged children overcome sleep problems.
Experimenting with your child’s bedtime can help the child build up something known as “sleep pressure.” Building up sleep pressure helps children to fall asleep more quickly and ultimately to learn that they can fall asleep in their own bed by themselves.
Other techniques involve “exposure-based” steps. For example, where the parent moves themselves step-by-step out of the child’s room. Alongside these techniques, parents also learn to work with their child to challenge unhelpful thoughts that might be keeping them awake.
These techniques aren't always easy. But the phrase “short-term pain for long-term gain” rings true for most evidence-based sleep interventions. While it can be challenging, with persistence and consistency, gains can be made in a relatively short period of time, and the whole family can get a better night’s sleep.