Helping babies and children with sleeping problems
It is normal for some children to have night time fears or worries, and to sometimes be described as a worrier. Helping your child to overcome their night time worries can teach them skills that can be applied to other areas in their life, since worry and anxiety about our environment, events and the future is a human complaint we all suffer from time to time (or regularly). Some children suffer from general anxiety and will need further treatment.
How to talk about your child’s fears and worries
You should let your child know you have confidence that they can deal with their night time fears. It is best to discuss it during the day so they are feeling more confident and can listen to reason while away from their fears.
Young children may be afraid of monsters or the dark. Older children may not be able to pinpoint what they are afraid of or worrying about, but have trouble falling asleep. It is important not to disregard your child regarding their fears about not being able to sleep, but you should not put a lot of importance on the irrational fears.
How to help your child deal with and externalise their fears
Externalising fears is a way to help your child deal with their fear and worries, and you can use creative ways to help them deal with their concerns. Some ideas are:
- ‘Monster traps’ can be set up during the day as a way to help make your child feel safe. It is a great way to get your child involved in combating their fears while also being creative.
- A worry box is a good way for older children to address vague worries. The child can put their worries in the box to think about the next day.
- Using the child’s imagination to create a protective fairy, dragon or other creature can help the child feel protected. Their protective friend can look after them and help take away their worries. Talking about this during the day and ahead of time can help them feel confident during the night.
Keeping solid routines
Sticking to a regular night time routine can be very important. Your child may need support and reassurance, but you should avoid creating a routine that makes your child dependant on you to get to sleep.
Routines that involve you lying next to them of having your child in bed with you can cause them to become dependent at bedtime, which may solve the immediate problem, but doesn’t foster independent sleeping habits which at some point will need to be implemented. Being gentle but firm can help make your child feel safe. It also lets your child know you are confident they can manage their fears. Giving in to your child’s requests can give the message that there is something to worry about and they are not going to be okay.
Understanding how to help your child relax
Relaxation exercises can help your child relax, and even young children can learn them. These techniques can include:
- Breathing exercises
- Positive imagery – encouraging your child to imagine a happy place they can go to when they feel worried or scared can help distract them, reduce stress hormones, and fall asleep
- Muscle relaxation – concentrating on relaxation can help distract your child and stop their worrying – relaxation can help get rid of any physical feelings associated with worrying
Tricks and tips for helping your child sleep better
Some things that can help you child sleep better include:
- Getting a night light – a dim, warm-toned light can be helpful in keeping your child calm, as long as it doesn’t keep them awake
- Security object – let your child choose something that makes them feel relaxed and safe during the night, which might be a soft toy, blanket or something special to them
- Positive reinforcement – rewarding your child for being brave and managing their worries can help encourage them to stay in bed and sleep through the night
When your child wakes in the night: understanding night terrors
Night terrors are the sudden and dramatic awakening during the night in the first few hours of sleep. It can be distressing to watch your child seem upset and inconsolable. It is common for children to have night terrors, and it will usually happen in preschool and primary school-aged children.
Night terrors don’t have a long-term effect on your child and they will usually outgrow them. Having a regular sleep schedule and a good bedtime routine can help reduce the frequency of night terrors.
Signs and symptoms of night terrors
Night terrors usually start with a scream or your child waking with a start and looking very scared. Other things your child may experience include:
- Your child may thrash their limbs or start trying to run away from something that is chasing them
- Their breathing and heart rate is faster
- Their eyes are wide and they are sweaty
- Your child may not recognise anyone and be inconsolable
- Night terrors can last about five to ten minutes and may occur more than once during the night
Why do night terrors occur?
A child who is having a night terror is stuck between being awake and sleep, while they are awake enough to get out of bed and even talk, they are still asleep enough not to be able to respond to parents. They will probably not remember the episode in the morning. Some causes of night terrors include:
- A history of sleepwalking or night terrors in the family
- Night terrors happen to most children and are not associated with any serious problems
- Night terrors generally happen in the first half of the night during the child’s deepest sleep
- Illness and fevers may worsen night terrors
What is a nightmare, and how is it different to a night terror?
Night terrors and nightmares are not the same. Nightmares are scary dreams that occur during the second half of the night when the child is having more of their dream sleep. A child can wake up and fully remember a nightmare, and be settled by their parents.
How to deal with night terrors
There are many ways to deal with night terrors, including:
- Keep calm and don’t touch you child unless they are going to hurt themselves, as that can make their episode worse
- Keep your house safe by keeping tripping hazards off the floor and locking windows and doors at night
- Having a regular sleep and bedtime routine can help reduce night terrors
- Don’t make a fuss about your child’s night terror unless your child asks, as they can become upset or anxious before going to bed
- There are no long-term effects of night terrors and children often grow out of them
If your child’s night terrors seem to be happening very frequently or are causing the child to hurt themselves, you can seek help for strategies to overcome this until your child moves on from the episodes.