Sleep Anxiety and Children


It is not unusual for one of my children to end up on my floor during the night. Sometimes I actually leave extra pillows out for them. It seems like it might be our youngest, maybe our oldest, or one of our middles.

Anxiety at night is normal. Your amygdala (the part of the brain that is in charge of fight or flight) reacts to being tired. So, it is usually in overdrive by the time night arrives. 

Wonder why it is so scary to hear a bump in the night versus a noise during the day? Your amygdala is to blame.

 Instinctually, it is just trying to save you from predators. And instinctually, our brains tells us we are safer when we are with our caregivers. Our ancestors used to sleep in packs. Sometimes my kids still do 😆

Do your children have nighttime sleep anxiety?

Try these tips:
  • Validate their feeling even if the worry isn't rationale.
    • "I know you are scared.  I don't like to feel scared either.  You are safe.  We are safe."
    • Have the child draw or talk about their worry. 
  • Teach the child mindfulness techniques.
    • Tell me 5 things you can see in the room.
    • Tell me 5 things you can hear in the room.
    • Tell me something you can smell.

Mindfulness employs different parts of your brain, which means your amygdala (remember the fight or flight part) is not in control.
  • Offer attention before your child seeks it. Bonus points if you give a choice.
    • "It will be bedtime in 5 minutes. Would you like to sit on my lap and read a book or lay in your bed and listen to two songs?"
  • Shift the child's focus to the future.
    • "Pick out a game we can play in the morning when you wake up."
    • "Do you want to find a book we will read in the morning?"
  • Make bedtime a SAFE time.
    • This means letting the child associate their bed with positive feelings and letting them feel some control over it.
    • "When your clock says five minutes have passed (you may need to write this on a sticky note), you can leave your bed and come lay on my floor."

You can continue to extend this time gradually.  The goal is that over time, the child may fall asleep on their own while waiting.  If the child is not able to make it the set time (say 15 minutes, try saying "Okay, we didn't quite make it to 15, let's see if you feel brave enough to make it to 12 minutes."

For my children, the rule is they can come to my floor as long as they do it quietly.  I just want them to start in their own bed.  We are at the point that they usually fall asleep and then come down in the night occasionally.  They know where to get pillows and blankets :)

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