"Can I have one more hug?" Most parents expect to hear such requests when they're putting their youngsters to bed, but my seven-year-old daughter is still calling out one, two and sometimes three hours after she's gone to bed. In short, she won't go to sleep.
It's not as if she's running around or even getting out of bed. In fact, her silence gives the impression that she's fallen fast asleep. But then, the little voice calls out.
Nine times out of ten, it's a ploy to get me in to tell me about something she's been thinking about. Something that happened in school that day, for instance, or a worry about something happening tomorrow.
So what should I do? Get cross? Ignore her? Or give in to the repeated hugs?
"The classic mistake is to get frustrated and angry," says Liz Fraser, Modern Family Expert for Care.com. "Often, we are so desperate for an evening to ourselves, or for our own sleep, that it's very tempting to just want to shout 'GO TO SLEEP!' But the effect of this is to further upset your child, who will then have even more trouble sleeping."
Another easy trap is to tell them they're being silly and should just go to sleep. "This totally ignores whatever worries or problems they're having and can also make matters worse," says Fraser.
Other parents try to solve the problem by letting their children go into their bed. "But this can be a slippery slope into never getting them to go back to their own room," she says. "Every so often, it's fine and can help to settle them. But do always try to take them back to their own bed if possible so they can associate that with sleeping well, not with bad nights."
Keeping calm is essential, believes Fraser. "Be caring, loving, protective and understanding and try to find out what's bothering them."
After all, she says, one of the main reasons for sleeplessness among primary school children is the period of transition from a fairly care-free toddler, just playing, to a child that understands much more about the world, has more worries, thoughts and social pressures at school.
Or it might just be that they're physically growing, she says. "For some youngsters, growing pains are a real problem and can keep them awake at night."
Being overtired is another major cause of delaying sleep, reports Lisa Artis of the Sleep Council.
She adds that being hungry, or conversely too full, can be a problem. "Children who are over hungry or too full of food – especially the wrong type of food – will not settle and sleep well. Being too thirsty can be a problem too as mild dehydration can affect sleep. Also the wrong type of drinks before bed will not help achieve a good night's sleep."
Then there are children who are just not comfortable, says Artis, who points out that many parents think nothing of spending a fortune on shoes for a child's growing feet but skimp on a mattress.
"A bed with a supportive mattress is a must for a growing child. An old, lumpy mattress is not likely to be conducive to quality sleep and can lead to back problems later in life, as well as affecting allergies such as asthma or eczema."
Being frightened may be an issue too. "Nightmares and night terrors can leave children distressed and less likely to go to bed. Meanwhile, children who are over-stimulated in the hours before bed – with active play or use of technology, for example – struggle to settle down and sleep."
Artis' advice is to establish and stick to a bedtime routine right from the start until the early teens. "This is normally along the lines of teatime, followed by quiet play, bath, story and then bed. The story could be made up, read out loud or to themselves. Otherwise, why not use the time to ask your child about their day?
"As a general rule of thumb, under threes will need 12 hours sleep; four to six year olds between 10.5 and 11.5 hours; six to 12 year olds around 10 hours and teenagers about eight to nine hours."
Ensure the environment is right for sleep, she adds. "It should be a cool, quiet, dark and free from distraction. Ideally computers, gaming machines and TVs should be banned from the bedroom but if that's unlikely, to keep them away from the bed and try to limit the use of these devices just before bedtime."
Do remember that like adults, children's sleep times can vary, however. "So don't feel anxious if your child isn't asleep by a set time," says Artis. "As long as they are lying down and are quiet, it's promoting a relaxing environment."
Mind you, points out child psychologist Lyn Fry, children have been known to surreptitiously get a bunch of teddies to play with quietly or slip a notebook and pen or electronic device under their pillow. "You need to make sure they are genuinely trying to drift off," she says.
Fry believes a reward system can be useful. "A lucky dip in the morning for any child who goes to sleep nicely or a reward after going to sleep for a certain number of nights on the trot can work wonders.
"It can also be useful to tell your child that you'll come in and check on them in 10 minutes after saying goodnight as it stops them feeling the need to shout out and helps them feel reassured. Even if they pretend to be asleep when you go in, that's a good thing as it means they're doing all the right things to lead to good sleep."
Too many parents simply announce that it's bed time out of nowhere, she says. "That means there's no clear messages, consistency or calming down period – all of which are essential to promoting sleepiness at the end of the day. Sleep is all about habit and routine."
5 top tips to help your child go to sleep:
- A warm milky drink can help to calm and sooth before bed.
- Night lights can help make children feel more reassured, especially if they are afraid of the dark.
- Having a radio playing gentle, classic music can distract the mind from worrying.
- If you think your child is too old for a bedtime routine, think again.
- Aromatherapy oils, including lavender and chamomile, work directly on your child's limbic lobe (the part of the brain that controls emotions) as well as relaxing their nervous system.
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