Sleep! Understanding Sleep Struggles and Working Towards a Smoother Bedtime
Updated: Apr 11
I have been thinking so much of your kiddos and your families. Yes, there are lots of silver linings to the situation we are in. However, there are a lot of hard parts too. It feels good to pick a side: this is good; this is bad. There is relief and comfort in that. Life makes more sense that way. The problem is life really doesn’t fall neatly into these categories. Most of life falls all over that line, with parts splayed on both sides. I have seen it in my own home, in the playroom, outside and over the computer screen – kids are struggling. They are also happy. They are both. We are all holding within us quite a complex mix of emotions right now. It’s a lot… and it impacts us body, mind and heart. I have talked about the ways that you may notice this impacting your children behaviorally and even emotionally. But now I want to talk about how this may be impacting them physically. I want to talk about sleep.
Sleep is a complex process that requires the brain, body and environment to get in sync with each other in order to override our “awake” mode and allow us to enter into a state of relaxation. This state of relaxation enables us to fall asleep. When we are in a state of high alert our body is unable to fully relax. This can not only cause difficulties in falling asleep, but it can also cause dysregulation when we become tired and our body senses sleep is approaching. During the day various internal and external factors can cause our brain and body to release stress hormones (including norepinephrine and cortisol – hormones responsible for gearing us up for action; preparing us for fight or flight!). The problem is many times what we are reacting to are PERCEIVED threats. This means there is a whole lot going on internally but on the outside we are not reacting in a way that is congruent with the surge of hormones going on inside of us. This causes major issues when we are trying to relax and sleep at the end of the day. Our brain and body have been in a state of high alert throughout the day, so not only are we unable to fall asleep, but our system also goes into overdrive to make up for the fact that it senses we are tired. Our brain thinks it is protecting us from falling asleep in the face of all these threats. “We must stay awake and alert. We must be ready to fight or run at any moment! No matter what, do not fall asleep!”
What can this look like in children at night?
- Hyperactivity – running, jumping, running away from you, not listening, inability to calm down
- Being overexcited – silliness, goofiness, laughing hysterically, pulling pants down, potty jokes
- Aggression / Defiance / Anger – all of that excitement can turn on a dime. All of a sudden you are in the midst of full on tantrum mode, complete with slapping, hitting, kicking, biting, throwing things. You name it (hello fight mode!)
- Increased emotionality – for some this looks like uncontrollable sobbing. The surge is not coming in the form of fight mode, but in an onslaught of tears and emotions that cannot be contained.
- Excessive talking – all of a sudden they are going on and on and on. They have so much to tell you. So much to talk about. “One more thing!”
- Fears / Phobias – spiders, shadows, some random character from a movie… all of a sudden these are the focal points for the surge of hormones that are now flooding your child. Their brain is telling them there is a threat – but there is no actual, easily identifiable threat in sight, so it focuses all that fear and energy on something that can be labeled. This is why these fears often seem irrational or “blown out of proportion”. It’s not really about that thing at all, it’s about the perceived sense of danger that has been putting them on high alert all day long. It’s all the other things that have been challenging, stressful, emotional – now flooding them with a sense of impending doom and danger.
You may notice that your child exhibits one or many of these presentations when it comes to bedtime. These can make for bedtime battles that bring even the most patient of parents to their breaking point.
So how do we help our kids settle for sleep? We have to do this through the BODY. By settling the nervous system in order to settle the brain. No amount of talking, telling or asking is going to help when it comes to these bedtime challenges. The name of the game is calming, soothing and settling. We want to DECREASE heightening / activating stimuli and INCREASE calming stimuli / sensations. The following are guidelines, not rules! Each child is different. You may find that for YOUR child watching something before bed actually helps them settle. You also may know full well that t.v. before bed is a recipe for trouble but it's movie night and so you accept that they may have a hard time after you turn the movie off. You are prepared for the fallout and you understand where it is coming from. It’s all about taking the guidelines and using them to explore and identify what is best for your unique child. It's about increased understanding and awareness - so you can make informed decisions and have more effective responses.
Guidelines for a Smoother Bedtime:
- Screens: (ideally no screens in the two hours before bedtime). The reason for this is twofold: 1. the light from the screens can mess with the body’s natural release of melatonin (which helps us fall asleep), and 2. Screens help us AVOID. Avoiding isn’t all bad… the problem is when avoiding is done, kids tend to get flooded with everything that they were able to hit “pause” on while watching or looking at their screen(s).
- High energy music: If you are having a night time dance party, you want to make sure you end with a gentle song. A song that you can sway and rock to in order to start to cultivate a sense of calm.
- High energy play: Rough housing, tickling, running / chasing games... these are going to engage the hyperactive, silly, excited responses. These responses may be fun in the moment, but they often end in a tantrum. That “fun” energy quickly shifts to a “panic” energy.
- Relaxing activities: Coloring, puzzles, drawing, knitting / crafts, card games, legos, reading
- Calming activities: Light yoga, a warm shower or bath, meditating, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation… Here is a free guided yoga nidra (yoga for restorative sleep) and singing bowl meditation: https://www.facebook.com/emily.p.lodge/videos/10221252837252195/UzpfSTEyODQ2MTI1ODI6MzA2MDYxMTI5NDk5NDE0OjEwOjA6MTU4NTcyNDM5OTozNzIyMTA1NjQ4MjI5NDk0MTI3/
It’s really beautiful – give it a try as a family!
- Rhythmic motions: Rocking, swaying. This could be from slow dancing, rocking in a rocking chair, rocking / swaying exercises. For kids that are already dysregulated: One of my favorite exercises for calming a dysregulated kid is to try and get them to sit on your lap, facing you. Hold them so that their arms and legs are around you (this protects you from hits and kicks). Start to rock back and forth in a forward and back motion. Rock faster to start. Once you have their attention, pause as you have them rocked forward. Tell them you need their help. You need them to use their strong breath to blow you back. Then they exhale and pull the breath in again as you rock forward. Continue rocking as they breathe. Once they seem settled you can get them to slow and extend their breath as you slow and extend your rocking motion. Eventually this ends in a snuggle / hug.
- Proprioceptive Input: This is especially helpful for kids with sensory sensitivity / challenges. Some options here are a weighted blanket, lycra / compression sheets, a tight hug (make sure you are checking in with them to make sure it’s not too tight), and / or rolling an exercise ball firmly over your child’s back while they lie on the ground. Another option (and one of my favorites) is a deep muscle massage. Get some lotion and slowly and with pressure massage their feet, legs and arms. This is a great activity for calming, soothing AND connection.
- Deep Breathing: Deep belly breathing through the nose. Inhale for 4; exhale for 8. If your child is dysregulated you will need to MODEL this for them as they won’t be in a place to follow a command. You would just lie near them or next to them and as audibly as you can breathe in for 4 and out for 8. Have your hands on your belly while you do this to emphasize that your belly is rising and falling with your breath. Another activity to engage younger kiddos is birthday candle breathing: You have them take a deep breath into their belly and as they exhale they SLOWLY blow out the candles (your 5 fingers). Repeat at least 5 times.
- Sucking: Try getting them to take a drink through a straw (water – no sugar!), this mimics the action of taking a breath in and can be helpful in “pausing” them so that you can then redirect them after they are finished their water..
Remember, these are guidelines. As you try different strategies please let me know how they go. Things that work or don’t work give us insight into what TYPES of interventions are most effective for your child. This helps us then customize strategies for you, your child and your family.
Stay well - thinking of you all,