Good sleep for nursery and school aged children

For your growing child, the world is a constantly fascinating place, filled with exciting experiences. They are learning new skills daily, and their sense of their own own developing abilities is both wonderful and a bit unsettling. Add to this the fact that young children naturally have more nightmares than adults and also tend to be scared of the dark, and it is not surprising that lots of nursery and school aged children find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep.

Read on for some practical tips on how to help………

In preparation for bed time, you and your child should try the following:

At least half an hour before bed, close down all screens. This includes TV, ipad, phone and computer. Research has shown that too much screen time too close to bed time causes difficulty with sleep onset.

Avoid too much exercise or homework very near to bed time. Try to have a “quiet time” together, chatting or reading.

Avoid having an over full tummy. Any pre bed time snacks should be light and easily digested.

Do not allow your child to have cola and other fizzy drinks or snacks like sweets and chocolate which contain stimulating substances.

Keep the bedroom for sleep. Discourage potentially stressful activities [which for some children could mean homework] in your child’s room, or they may associate it with wakefulness and worry rather than sleep.

Never send your child to their room as a punishment.

Make sure that your child’s bed and mattress are comfortable, and that the room temperature is correct [around 18 degrees centigrade]

Children need to feel SAFE at night. The best way of achieving this is to let them have a very structured routine leading up to bedtime, with as much repetition as possible.

Be sure that you set aside time for this. Try not to take ‘phone calls etc.

1. Bath – Every night. Its a great bed time signifier and it helps the body to relax.

2. Straight to the bedroom. No running in and out of the living room. Children need to feel safely contained at bed time, and to know that there are boundaries.

3. Same routine in their room each night e.g. pyjamas on, arranging books/toys etc, getting comfy.

4. Reading time. If you are still reading to your child, finish off with a very familiar “sleep time” book. Perhaps one that they enjoyed when they were a little younger. This will act as a sleep trigger and also increase your child’s feeling of being safe and secure.

Choice of stories is important. If your child is sensitive, avoid any scary stories and if your child is older check out what they are reading. Lots of younger children’s literature is frightening as well as wonderful. These stories are better for day time reading, unless your child is easily able to close the book and sleep beautifully each night.

Make sure that your child has all that they need for the night e.g. teddy/blanket/drink and do not allow yourself to be drawn into lengthy negotiations about position of toys and so on!

6. Keep the lighting low but the bedroom needn’t be pitch dark. It is ok to keep a landing light or very dim night light on.

7. It is vital that YOU demonstrate a loving, cheerful and confident attitude to bed time, and are able to be in control about applying the rules and routines.

Sometimes children are unable to go to sleep because of fears and worries. A child may fear that there are scary monsters in the room for instance. Worries very often spring from a child’s actual as well as imagined experiences. Another very significant feature of younger children’s sleep is nightmares.

Here are some suggestions for helping your child to cope:

During the day:

If your child has a recurrent nightmare, spend some time working with them to change the ending to a funny or safe one e.g. the dinosaur that is chasing them turns into tiny mouse and runs away.

Explain to your child that it is normal to have bad dreams. It is a sign that they are growing up and that their imagination is working well.

Make time to talk to your child about any worries. Sometimes there may be practical solutions to them. Even if there are no solutions, they will value your care and concern. If possible it is best to talk early in the day rather than close to bed time. Avoid pressuring your child to talk if they don’t want to, and respect their wishes when they want the conversation to end!

At bed time

Do not allow yourself to get into a long discussion about your child’s fears or worries. Remember, you have already done this during the day.

If your child can not get off to sleep, suggest a simple mental exercise which will distract from any fears and remove the focus from the stressful task of trying to sleep. One that I find is very effective is making alphabetical mental lists of animals, countries etc. For younger children it can be made easier by, say listing the girls/boys in their class.

Encourage your child to think about a nice forthcoming event or to imagine that they are riding on their own horse or own their own zoo!

It is most important that your child learns to go to sleep, without having you in the room. If you stay beside them as they fall asleep, they will inevitably wake up during the night and search for you. Kiss goodnight and then GO!

If you are used to sitting with your child until sleep comes, you can expect lots of protest and a much longer settling period than you are used to. You will need to keep on briefly returning to them to quickly reassure them. Children love things to be familiar and predictable, and when you change their normal settling routine, it will inevitably be stressful for them. Bear this in mind when they struggle to get off to sleep alone. If you are able to be resolved, loving and consistent, the process of your withdrawal will not take longer than a couple of nights.[See my article on reclaiming your bed.]

During the night

If your child wakes in the night because they have had a nightmare:

Encourage them to repeat a simple mantra e.g. “Go away silly dream.”

Suggest that they repeat the same mental exercise that they used for getting off to sleep.

Demonstrate a calm and reassuring manner. If your child is feeling frightened and out of control, they need to know that you are totally in control.

Try to avoid letting your child into your bed. [Unless you don’t mind it becoming a habit!]

It is important that after you have been to your child to reassure them, that when they are calm and no longer distressed, you leave them to get back to sleep alone. They need your help to cope independently with bad dreams, and hanging around for too long may reinforce their fears.

Rarely, children develop nightmares as a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or other serious psychological condition. If your child has suffered from unusual stress [more than the birth of a sibling or starting school] and is having regular, distressing nightmares, it is advisable to seek professional help.

If your child requires you to sit beside them every night as they go to sleep and then wakes later to either call you back or get into your bed; it is much more likely to be a habit than a genuine need. Unwillingness to settle alone at night is a sign that their imagination is developing well. It is a normal and transient stage in their growing up, and taking positive steps now to help them sleep alone, will equip them with one of the most valuable of life skills.

Copyright Andrea Grace