On Healing 11/23/2009: A 9-year-old suddenly has sleep problems

Dear Dan,
I sure could use some advice. We have a 9-year-old daughter who has been an excellent sleeper her whole life. About six weeks ago, she started having trouble going to sleep. I did the same thing at her age, but don’t remember what my parents did to help me, other than show me relaxation techniques.

Nothing seems to be working. We do yoga poses, deep breathing, progressive relaxation. And if I do them with her, they tend to work. She will not do them on her own.

Now she also wants me upstairs when she goes to sleep, saying she likes it better when someone is nearby. I am frustrated. She seems fine during the day, and gets up at her regular time, but it is stressing me out.

I am not sure how to get out of this cycle. If you could point me to a useful Web site, therapist, whatever, I would really appreciate it!
– Worried Mom

Dear Mom,
An estimated 20 percent of young children have insomnia, characterized by a chronic inability to get to sleep or stay asleep. And, as you imply, growing evidence exists of a genetic link. But I would be hard-pressed to suggest your daughter has insomnia after just six weeks of difficulty, especially since she functions well during the day. What it sounds like is that she (and you) are having some distress around bedtime.

So let’s begin by looking at the big picture, what we call sleep hygiene. Children like routine as it makes them feel safe. So make sure bedtime and awake time are pretty consistent, even on weekends.

If she is having difficulty going to sleep, you might want to avoid sleep-over parties or trips in the short run, as sleeping in her own bed will also help her feel more secure. She should be getting plenty of exercise during the day. A light snack might help her sleep, but she shouldn’t go to bed on a full stomach. The bedroom should not have television or computer, and all stimulating activity should cease a few hours before bed.

As children move toward bedtime, the environment should begin to get quiet. Discussions, games, and reading are good nighttime activities.

If you think back to your difficulty when you were 9, the only thing you have to remember is that whatever your mother did, you got over it. And given the fact that it happened to both of you around the same age, I have to wonder if part of the culprit is the onset of hormonal changes, which have an impact on circadian rhythms.

And of course there is always the psychological factor. Nighttime is when demons come out to play. The thoughts and emotions that we keep at bay during our busy day go into high gear when things quiet down.

As in adults, a child’s anxiety could be about anything including school, friends, or things even more frightening. Around this age, children begin thinking about life and death as this is a time when grandparents become ill and die. Once they realize the reality of death, they begin to think about the possibility of losing parents and even their own lives – especially around bedtime. And don’t get me started on the “if I should die before I wake . . . ” prayer! There must be better ideas about the divine we can put in our children’s heads before they go to sleep.

Children are also like sponges for stress. Look at your family life. Has there been stress in your marriage, a recent divorce, or a job loss?

It might be great to talk to her about what goes through her mind before she goes to sleep and what some of her fears might be. I wouldn’t have this discussion before bedtime as it will only feed the anxiety, but perhaps over dinner or some other leisure time. And if she can open up, please don’t try to talk her out of her fears as it will not make her feel better, only lonelier.

And speaking of loneliness, when children lie in bed at night feeling anxious waiting for sleep to come, they feel very alone. I’m sure you did when you were her age. And if you can think back to what you wanted most then, it was probably companionship. That’s what your daughter is asking for now. Simple companionship.

She might be prone to anxiety, and if so, she might be getting some of that from her mother. Please don’t worry about right and wrong, or what should or shouldn’t be done. All that worry is just your anxiety. You have a child who’s having trouble and wants her mom. Follow your maternal instinct rather than pop psychology and care for your child. It might be good for both of you. That’s what your mother did with you, and it worked pretty well.

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