Sleep is vital for our health, mood and development. Having adequate sleep is just as important as eating well and exercising. Sleep is directly linked to immune function, growth, concentration, memory, mood, the ability to learn and even coordination. Sleep is so incredibly important to well-being but it is also one of the biggest issues parents have with their children. When a child can’t sleep it impacts the whole family. Tired parents become even more stretched, frustrated and exhausted. Nobody functions at their best when they lack sleep.
Typically issues around sleep involved difficulty getting kids to go to bed, getting to sleep, having them wake up during the night, nightmares and keeping them in their own bed. Most children will struggle with these at some point. It is normal but there are things that we can do to help.
Photo by Renee Irving-Lee
To get the best sleep possible we need to put in a foundation. This won’t fix everything but it is a good place to start.
Routine: sleep needs to happen at the same time every night. Our body gets into a rhythm when it comes to sleep. Have a calm time before bed so that the body is able to wind down. Have bath, teeth, stories etc. and try and do them at the same time and in the same order. I know this isn't always going to work, but if you can do it their body will automatically calm with the routine. The research shows that children who have a regular bedtime fall asleep quicker, wake less during the night and sleep for longer.
Limit screen time: we know that the blue light from screens inhibits the body from producing melatonin which helps regulate sleep. Screens also stimulate the brain even though we think kids are calm watching the ipad, their brains are actually overstimulated which is going to make it very difficult to sleep. There should be no screens at least an hour before bed and definitely no screens in the bedroom
Give them a way to calm their brain: kids that are anxious often have difficulty calming their thoughts enough for sleep. When all is quiet, that is when their thoughts seem to come flooding in. These are the kids that come out 10 times because they have to tell you something. When they are overwhelmed by feelings it will come out as behaviour. They might be defiant, aggressive, teary, clingy or any other expression of emotion.
If we spend connected time with our kids before bed then they will feel less need to come out of bed and be able to sleep peacefully. Try and avoid the bedtime rush. I know parents may be desperate to get their kids into bed so they can finally have some time alone. But if we invest a little more time in keeping things calm as the kids go to bed we are more likely that everyone will get a better night sleep.
Spend time having snuggles and talking about the day. It is a good idea to add gratefulness to your bedtime routine. Even though things might be scary in the world, there are always things to be grateful for. Everyone, including parents can take turns saying what they are grateful for. This will turn their attention to the positives which is particularly important before sleep. Also don't skip story time. Reading a story together, even for older children will help them activate their imagination in a positive way and help them dream.
Nightmares are really common for children particularly aged between 4 and 12 years of age. Research suggests that about a quarter of children will have a nightmare at least once a week. The reason that nightmares are so common in children is that their imagination at this age is so vivid and it can be difficult to make a distinction between fantasy and reality.
Our brains dream for a reason. It is through dreaming that our brain takes what has happened during the day and forms them into memories. It can take things that you have learnt or it can take feelings that you have had and try and make sense of them. Anxiety about starting a new school could turn into a hairy monster with fangs, but the feeling is the same. When you are asleep the logical part of your brain is resting and the more creative part of your brain takes over, there are no rules or limitations. This is why dreams can be amazing, but they can also be terrifying.
As parents, when our child comes in to our room frightened by some sort of fanciful dream, it is tempting for us respond through bleary eyed exhaustion and say “it’s just a dream”, “it’s not real”, “don’t think about it”. While we do this with the best of intentions, the truth is it simply won’t work. Telling a child that the dream isn’t real simply doesn’t fit with their experience. Their heart is racing, they saw the monster, they smelt it, their feet hurt from running for their life in their dream. To them that dream was very real. Similarly, if you tell them not to think about it, I guarantee that will be ALL they can think about. If I tell you not to think about chocolate, what did you think about? You can’t help it, it is automatic.
What you can do
Dreams can make us feel like we are out of control. It can be petrifying going to bed knowing that you could have a scary dream and feeling like there is nothing that you can do about it. While it might seem strange, the best thing that you can do it talk about and imagine those scary dreams. But instead of being helpless and out of control, take that control and create the ending of the dream that they want. Research has shown that when we think of new endings to our dreams while awake, the dream can change when we go back to sleep.
If your child wakes during the night from a nightmare, remember that they will probably be in “fight/flight” mode and as a result they may not be able to think of new ending to their dreams straight away. Help them calm first, give them hugs and reassurance that they are safe. Then when they are calm, have them tell you about their dream. Be careful not to dismiss their dream as silly. They need to know that you understand how they feel. Say things like “that does sound scary” or “I would be scared by that too”. When they are calm and supported they will feel safe to brainstorm with you a new ending.
When we dream our brain uses pictures so make sure you use a lot of imagery in your new endings. Think about the colours, the taste, smell and feel. You want to make it as real as possible. The thing that I have found that works the best is to make the new ending funny. When we laugh our body automatically becomes relaxed. So fart monsters away, turn vampires into chocolate and eat them, whatever is fun. There are no rules with dreams so make it as crazy as your imagination will allow. Sometimes kids have a recurring dream. In that case it can be helpful to draw the new ending out and go over it again when they are going to sleep at night.
When I wrote my children’s book “The Dream Director” I found that so many children were struggling with nightmares and parents were at a loss as to how to manage them. However, if we give control back to our kids in how their dreams should end, we take the power away from the fear and give them confidence to sleep. The story in my book give examples of how this strategy can be applied to common childhood nightmares. It gives children the chance to practice this skill when they aren't in the moment and before going to sleep to that if they do wake is is easier for them to take control of their dream and sleep.
Sleep is something we often neglect and take for granted, but sleep is just as important for our health as eating well and exercising. If we want our kids to grow, develop, learn and be happy, we can't overlook the importance of sleep. Nightmares are a common cause of disrupted sleep in most families if we give kids the tools to change their dreams they will grow in confidence to sleep without fear.