Helping Your Child Sleep

I often have people ask me for tips in getting their children to sleep.  By children I am talking about kids around 4 years or older.  With younger children the experts are divided on how to handle the situation with Dr. Richard Ferber at one end of the scale and Dr. William Sears at the other. All the experts agree however the process involves calming the child down — Ferber suggesting the child learn to calm themselves down while Sears advocates the parent helping the child to calm down.

When the child gets to the age of 4 or older and there are still issues around getting to sleep there might be a new anxiety developing.  As the child brain begins to develop Beta waves, the division between fantasy and reality becomes less blurred.  The child begins to see reality more clearly and starts to see threats in their environment.  The idea of going to sleep when they are’t sure if they are safe becomes the new issue.

Most parents I talk with diagnose their child as “not wanting to miss anything” as a way of explaining why the child fights the sleep process.  Well, that diagnosis is not far off but it is by no means correct.  When a child is refusing to go to sleep they are more likely becoming hyper–vigilant, that is, on the alert or lookout for anything that might threaten their safety.  In other words, “not wanting to miss anything” — because the child is quite curious while hyper-vigilance occurs because the child is quite scared — will look exactly the same to a parent.

A simple approach to helping your child is to stay in their room while they are going to sleep.  Your job is to reassure the child they are safe.  Don’t tell the child to “go to sleep” as you should already know that is not working.  Instead, sit next to their bed and talk to them about how safe they are in this house and in this room.  The first night they might be curious why you are staying in the room and might even have some anxiety about your presence especially if in the past you entering their room at this time of the evening meant they were in trouble.


So, just sit next to their bed and use a monologue that might sound something like this, “I am just going to stay with you for a while because I like to watch how you go to sleep.  You know I am always watching out for you, keeping you safe, while you are awake and while you are sleeping.  I will stay here in your room for awhile even after you go to sleep.  Then, I will go check all the doors to the house to make sure they are locked and we are all safe here so we can relax and go to sleep.  It is so easy to just relax and go to sleep knowing you are safe, right here, in your bed.  Being so tired and wanting to relax and sleep, now, is so nice when you know you are safe and sound asleep.  It is comforting to know everything is all right and you can relax knowing mommy loves you and daddy loves you and you are safe while you are so tired going to sleep.”   

Notice there are some words and phrases in italics.  Those are words and phrases that you can emphasize as a type of command but with softer slower voice.  All throughout your monologue your voice can become gradually slower, softer, and more deliberate.  You can modify this little sleep talk any way you please.  The secret is in subtly putting suggestions or commands related to — relax, safe, all right, sleep,  tired, comfort, okay  — and so on.

If you have a talkative little one do not engage a dialogue with them. Answer only one or two questions then reassure them everything is all right and say, “It’s okay for you to just listen, now” and keep talking softly.  Sometimes it even helps to go into a whisper as this will cause their sub-conscious mind to strain harder to hear you and will tend to shut down the conscious mind’s need to talk.

Before you leave the room spend a minute or two just watching your child sleep.  Softly whisper, “Mommy loves you daddy loves you, you are completely safe here.”

Are you still struggling getting your kids to go to sleep?  Have them pretend.  Kids are great at pretending.  Sit next to their bed, touch the top of their forehead, and say, “you don’t have to go to sleep if you don’t want to.  If you want to you can.  It’s your choice.  Let’s play the sleep game.  Close your eyes but don’t go to sleep.  Now pretend you are asleep.  I’ll be right here to keep you safe.”

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