For those of you who now find yourself with an older child unable to sleep at night, the following discussion will hopefully be of some assistance. Even though you may have applied all of the methods advised in my prior blogs, you may now find yourself with a 2-4 year old waking you multiple times per night or making several (successful or unsuccessful) attempts to sleep in your bed.
It is important for all parents to understand that, as when they were younger, the method by which your child falls asleep often determines how well your child will sleep through the night. Generally, if you are having sleep difficulties, you have fallen into some disruptive habits when putting them to bed at night. Assuming you are with your child during sleep onset in some way, this is the place where changes need to be made. There are many ways to achieve the separation needed, of which I will give you my favorite. First, all physical contact needs to be stopped immediately. You may sit or lie on the floor while your child falls asleep; do not get into their bed or allow them into yours. Every second to third night, move your position a foot closer to the door. In the end, you should be sitting outside the door on the other side of the wall. Once you have withdrawn all physical AND visual contact for a few nights, your child will usually begin to sleep through the night. It is important to be honest and tell them you will not stay there all night even if it prolongs the process (lying just creates mistrust). If your child refuses to stay in their bed during this process, it is advisable to leave the area completely or close the door. Most children will comply with staying in their beds while they fall asleep if they know you are willing to implement harsher methods. Whatever routine has been established at bedtime must be repeated for any awakenings during the night. Although this process may take a week or more, it tends to diminish stress to the child and empowers them to conquer their fears. Fear of the dark is normal, but parents can definitely increase this by trying to explain away the fears too much. It is important to dismiss these conversations quickly as figments of their imagination.
Nightmares are a different yet common sleep problem that begins around 3-4 years old. Prior to this age, most children do not have a mature enough imagination for a true nightmare. They are not due to manipulation but rather actual dreams and warrant a bit more understanding. A nightmare can be differentiated from attention seeking by the level of dream detail described by the child. When aiding your child through a nightmare, it is fine to stay in their room or bring them in yours until they relax. Again, try not to have any physical contact which encourages future night awakenings.
In spite of your best efforts, some children, especially older ones, persist in having trouble with sleep onset. This is often due to anxiety or Attention Deficit Disorder, especially if they do not wake much in the middle of the night. These possibilities should be discussed with your physician.
Hopefully, some of these suggestions will help your child develop healthy sleep habits and aid you in getting a good night’s sleep. Remember, when children do not sleep well, studies have shown they don’t learn as well. It is never in the child or family’s best interest to allow the child to disrupt the parents’ relationship and sleep.
Written by Dr. Virginia DePaul