You just put your child to bed and turned out the light when your child calls out for you. He wants just one more glass of water, one more hug, one more reassuring word. She pleads for you to sit with her and tell her one more story. He whimpers he is scared of the dark. She is frightened of the sounds the house makes at night. Worried children want the adult they love and trust the most to stay with them. To make everything “OK.”
Few of us fall asleep the moment our head hits the pillow. Sometimes it is because we are in an unfamiliar environment or something big and upsetting is going on in our life. But sometimes it’s nothing more than little worries that can add up and make it just as hard to sleep. When we have trouble getting to sleep because we are worried, we’re still in a state of hyperarousal even after we fall asleep—we are ready for fight or flight. We are likely to awaken throughout the night or wake up too early in the morning.
The same is true for children: their worries can be overwhelming and interfere with a comforting bedtime routine and getting to sleep. Ranging from, “How did I do on that math test?” and “Why didn’t the other kids let me sit with them at lunch?” all the way to “Will I get bullied tomorrow?” or “Why have my parents been fighting so much recently?”
What do children do with these negative thoughts? Often, they deal with them in the same, unhealthy way that adults do: they avoid them. Between school and extracurricular activities, homework and playtime, they can keep their minds and bodies busy. In the rare free moment, they may use their smartphone as a convenient distraction, another opportunity to set their anxieties aside. Even though children may be good at pushing worries aside during the day, all those accumulated negative thoughts and worries have a captive audience at bedtime. Once TVs and phones are off, and lights are dimmed, those worries flood the mind, even larger and more overwhelming than they may be in reality. And they significantly prolong how long it takes for a worried child to fall asleep. So, the child calls out, and we find ourselves back in the familiar scenario. Please, just one more reassuring hug.
As a healthcare practitioner who specializes in sleep, I hear a lot about worries. I know I cannot be there with every child at bedtime. But I can empower the caregivers who are. I encourage them to help their children face their fears head on—but earlier in the day with “scheduled worry time.” Like an appointment with a physician, or an extra sports practice, you can schedule 10 to 15 minutes daily to encourage your child to get all of those heavy burdens off their little shoulders. This doesn’t have to be problem-solving time, it is more of a release. Some children will want to talk it through, while others may journal, sketch, write a song… anything to help them feel at ease, to be brave enough to bring light to their darkest fears.
Day after day, as your child becomes accustomed to addressing their worries and anxieties, their brain and body come to rely on this practice at this particular time. This allows for the night to go more smoothly, to be a time for deceleration and relaxation rather than gearing up for inner turmoil. With worries addressed during the day, you can provide a truly comforting bedtime routine and a peaceful night’s sleep.
Innessa Donskoy, MD, FAAP, is a Pediatric Sleep Medicine Physician at Advocate Children’s Hospital and a member of our Good Night Advisory Council. You can learn more about her here.