Sleep Kits Help Foster Children Manage Effects of Trauma
By Eliza Partika
October 13, 2022
A stuffed animal, aromatherapy, a night-light. A kit containing these and other items can help children in foster care who have experienced trauma sleep more soundly, a critical step in helping them cope with their emotional distress.
In a new study, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) reported that sleep kits specially tailored to foster children appeared to be helpful in most cases. The kits can be distributed by pediatricians in the office or clinic setting, they added.
“Children who have experienced trauma can have issues with behavior, it can impact their school, and they have difficulties sleeping,” Kristine Fortin, MD, MPH, director of the Fostering Health Program at Safe Place: Center for Child Protection and Health at CHOP, said. “I thought, what could a pediatrician do in the office in one visit to help children with sleep?”
Fortin and her colleagues designed sleep kits for both younger children and adolescents.
The version for teenagers contained a sound machine, aromatherapy spray, and a sleep mask. The kits for younger children contained matching stuffed toys to share with someone they felt connected to, and a rechargeable night-light. All kits included written materials about sleep hygiene, a journal, and directions for downloading a free age-appropriate relaxation app for belly breathing or a PTSD Coach app from the US Department of Veterans Affairs to manage symptoms of trauma.
In a pilot study presented at the 2022 annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Fortin and her colleagues surveyed caregivers in foster homes about their use of the kits.
Of the 20 foster parents who responded to the survey, 11 said the kits helped “very much,” 5 others reported they helped “somewhat,” another 2 reported no improvements in sleep, and 2 said they didn’t know the effect. The children for whom results were unknown moved from the home without the sleep kit or had difficulties communicating with the foster parents, resulting in incomplete assessment, according to the researchers.
Night-lights were used most in the kits, followed by the stuffed toys, sound machines, and sleep journals.
Fortin said existing resources like sleep therapy or medication can be costly or difficult to find, and many pediatricians don’t have enough time during wellness visits to address symptoms like sleep deprivation. She said the sleep kits could be an alternative to other forms of sleep therapy. “If these sleep kits were effective, and could really help them sleep, then maybe less children would need something like medication,” she said.
Fortin said the kits her group has designed are tailored specifically for children with symptoms of trauma, or with difficult emotions associated with foster care.
“We’ve tried to design something that can be really practical and easy to use in a pediatric visit, where there’s a lot of written information that can be discussed with the child and their family,” Fortin said.
She added that she would like to see clinicians give out the sleep kits during in-office visits.
“These sleep issues are common in foster children,” she said. “We felt it was important to do an intervention.”
Kristina Lenker, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Penn State Health, Hershey, Pennsylvania, said children in foster care often struggle with falling or staying asleep, an inability to sleep alone, nightmares, and bedwetting.
“Sleep kits can be particularly helpful for these children, given how they can help caregivers to provide a safe sleep environment and predictable routine, and send messages of safety and comfort at bedtime, with tangible objects, and enable children to feel a sense of control,” she said.
Charitable organizations like Pajama Program and Sleeping Children Around the World provide sleep kits to children from underserved backgrounds. But Candice Alfano, PhD, director of the University of Houston’s Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston, said the CHOP kits are the first to specifically target sleeping difficulties in foster children.
“Sleep is a largely neglected yet essential area of health, development, and well-being in this highly-vulnerable population of youth, so I am very excited to see this work being done,” Alfano told Medscape Medical News.
Fortin and Lenker report no relevant financial relationships.