How To Help Children With Sleep Issues

We’ve heard from hundreds of thousands of parents over the years who are completely exhausted because their child keeps them up all night long. We’ve been there. It IS exhausting. But there are some specific reasons this is happening, and some key ways to help your child.

“What’s wrong with this child?” I remember thinking this thought repeatedly in 2004 when we first began fostering. “Why won’t he sleep?” “Why does he need to be in our room, with us?” “Why does he keep coming in and waking us up?” “Why won’t a nightlight, or soft music playing, or a bunch of stuffed animals help him?” I had a lot to learn back in that day.

For starters, I stepped into foster care (and adoption) with a mainstream mindset on things like discipline, childhood development, diet, behavior and yes….sleep. In my mind, you have a child…you give a child everything they need…you tuck the child into bed…you kiss them on the forehead…you say goodnight…you turn off the light…end of story. Maybe. Maybe if your child hadn’t bounced from foster home to foster home before arriving in yours. Maybe if they hadn’t witnessed domestic violence as a toddler. Maybe if they were not malnourished as a newborn and infant and living with a fear of ‘there’s never enough.’ Maybe.

The fact is, a child who has been removed from their first family, even if it were dire circumstances, is afraid. A child who has suffered through a lack of permanency from multiple foster homes has it imbedded deep within them that this isn’t going to last. That breaks my heart.

When I was growing up I wanted nothing more than to be at my house, with my mom, and dad, no matter what. I couldn’t even make it through a full week of summer camp in Junior High. Yes, that’s how bad I wanted to be home. Even today, my favorite place to be in the world is right here, in my warm home, with my family. As I think about what it must be like to be taken out of your home, and placed with strangers, in a strange home, far away from anything you know, I choke up. I can’t imagine not being able to be in my home.

With that in mind, picture your child. Picture any child who has had to leave his or her home, even as a baby, and you begin to get a clear picture of the fear that lives within them. Fear of the unknown. Fear that you won’t be there when the wake up. Fear that another stranger is going to show up and take them from you. Fear. Picture the child who has witness horrific stuff, or suffered through abuse, or lived in a dangerous place. All fear.

Fear is a hard competitor to battle. It could take years and years to reverse this belief that lives in your child. Believe me, we know firsthand. There was a day, not that long ago, when we thought we would never sleep through the night again because we were parenting a child who was afraid. If you’re at your wit’s end, you don’t know how to help your child who isn’t sleeping, and you need some perspective, here are some key responses that can help you as you work to help your child:

  1. Patience. Remember where your child has come from. Remember what they went through (if you know the full picture). They have every right to be afraid. If they’ve just come into your care, they have no reason to trust you, or believe you will be there forever. If you’ve adopted your child from major trauma (or really any trauma), they are functioning from their brain stem (survival mode). There is a voice in their sub-conscience telling them this won’t last, you won’t be there, and more. They are fearful, and they may not even know why. You must be patient. This will take a lot of time and consistently being there to meet their needs, to subside the fear in them. The last thing you want to do is become frustrated (even though you’re exhausted and this is a natural reaction). Keep your tone, emotions, reaction, and body language under control. These can become massive triggers for a traumatized child if we’re not careful.
  2. Reassurance. Continually tell your child that you’re not going anywhere. This is a bit tricky if you’re temporarily fostering, but you can still deliver reassurance to some measure. But if you are their forever family, it’s critical that they hear you say it, and then see you physically living this out. As you tuck them into bed, reassure them. Stay in their room for a long time until they are comfortable. In the middle of the night, reassure them when they come looking for you. Remember, this is them trying to connect to you. It’s a big opportunity, even though you are exhausted. Throughout their day, reassure them. Reassurance is so simple but we often forget about its power when we’re struggling to make sense of a child with sleep issues.
  3. Space. A few years ago I wrote a post entitled “Dear Parent With A Second Bed In Your Room: You’re Doing The Right Thing.” Your reassurance may be creating space on your bedroom floor, or in a part of your room, for your child to sleep each night when they wake up afraid. This key really should be number 1 on this list. Because of their fear they are waking up. Because of their disbelief that you are not going to be there, they are coming to you. Why not allow them to stay in the place that brings them comfort, with the people who may bring them the most reassurance? This may also help you get a fairly full night’s rest. When we finally figured this out two things happened: our child began sleeping through the night because he was immediately reassured that we were not going anywhere, and we started sleeping more consistently through the night.
  4. Consistency. I mentioned this earlier, but it may take years for your child to finally find peace and begin sleeping consistently through the night. Depending on the level of trauma they experienced, they may be in complete survival mode, and this will take a lot of time to subside or reverse. But consistency over time can equal big change. It took us several years of consistently reassuring our child that we weren’t going anywhere. It took years of allowing him to sleep in a small bed in the corner of our room before he finally started sleeping through the night in his own room. You must prepare yourself for the long haul here.

I don’t want to close this post without expressing my deep understanding for what you’re going through with your child. In spite of me explaining where your child is coming from and what is prompting him or her to be up all night long, this is still exhausting, and frustrating at times. Hang in there. A lot of these issues take many years, and lots of time. You are not alone on this journey. We have been there and we know exactly what you are going through. Do your best to love this precious child, and make sure you carve out bite-sized chunks of time to take care of you! We are cheering for you.

Question: Are you parenting a child with sleep issues? How have you struggled? What practices have you found successful? Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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