HELP FOR CHILDREN WHO STRUGGLE WITH SLEEP
If you are the parent of an easy-going predictable sound sleeper, you can be as creative and enthusiastic as you wish over the Christmas period. However, if your child is sensitive and does not show a great deal of consistency at bedtime or during the night, I recommend that you consider my seven tips for settled children on Christmas night. They will be reviled one by one on the Good Sleepers Facebook page.
Help them regulate their nervous system
How many times have we heard ourselves say “please, calm yourself down!”, and the result being two seconds of respite (showing willingness from our child) followed by more uncontrollable behaviour? When a child is in a state of nervous overload, they cannot think straight, they become less receptive to their environment but also hyperactive and unpredictable. They make involuntary movements or actions that can be mistaken for naughtiness.
It is very hard for a child under the age of 12 and near impossible for a child under the age of 7 to consciously make an effort to resettle their nervous system (even when they know how), so the job is on us to help them. The good news is: With a bit of practice, carers can really help their children regulate their nervous system. Of all the tips in this series, this one is the most important in my eyes. An overloaded nervous system will hinder the falling asleep process of even the most efficient independent sleeper.
Read on to understand, prevent and correct a nervous system overload.
The nervous system takes part in two complementary activities. The first activity is receiving information from the body’s surrounding environment: a sensory function. The second activity is providing a response to the information received: a motor function. At bedtime, the best state for the nervous system to be in is calm, regulated. The heart rate is resting, the respiration is easy going and the mind is in a “safe” state. It is the best place to be to start the bedtime hour. The demeanour of a child with a regulated nervous system is not necessary calm but predictable, easy going and most importantly, receptive and attentive. On the other hand, when the nervous system is overloaded and therefore not coping, the heart rate is elevated, the respiration is fast and in the upper chest, the mind is in a state of stupor or excitability. The demeanour of a child with an overloaded nervous system is fragmented or chaotic, unpredictable. The child becomes inaccessible with an inability to regulate their emotions or their movements.
Tired children are more likely to access this state than their well-rested counterparts, so please don’t contemplate skipping the regular lunchtime nap in the hope to have an easier bedtime hour. Here are pitfalls and best practices to help regulate your child’s nervous system on Christmas eve
Children’s nervous system line up to their parents’, so remain calm during the Christmas traditional activities (carrot +minced pies) and speak with a calm low pitch voice
Reduce sensory inputs from at least one hour before bedtime:
- Favour calm carols and gentle sounds, avoid loud bouncy Christmas music,
- Favour gentle glittering and warm dim lights, avoid sporadic flashing bright lights.
- Switch off all screen (TV, Laptops, iPads, smart phones) 1 h before bedtime. Watch a Christmas film earlier in the day.
- Speak slowly and gently, avoid shouting or incessant communication.
- Settle down, read books and tell stories, avoid playing chase or running after your children.
- Take five: The first step in helping your child is helping yourself calm down. Take five minutes to focus on your own nervous state and gather yourself. Take long deep breathes and relax your shoulders. No parent can help their child calm down if they are nervous wreck themselves (Signs of your own nervous exhaustion: overwhelming feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety, irritability and restlessness).
- Cold exposure: Christmas is the perfect time of year for this. Everybody out! Go for a walk round the block with not too many layers on. Cold exposure will stimulate the Vagus Nerve which is a big player in lowering the heart rate and supporting the parasympathetic state (Rest & digest) of the nervous system. If you decide to give a cool shower to your child, it must NOT be a punishment and you should start the shower at a comfortable temperature. Then turn it into a game: decrease the temperature of the water one step at the time and see if you get the go ahead by your child to decrease it a little more. It will also help if the bedroom area is a fresh environment.
- Synchronised deep breathing: Sit back on a sofa, or a chair or on a bed against pillows or on the floor against a wall. Ask your child to sit on your lap, straddling you, facing you. Then, bring him close. Make a hug and start to breathe: deeply, slowly, fully, mindfully and consistently. After 2 or 3 breaths on your own, tell your child “Join me now, copy the shape of my body. Copy when the air goes in and copy when the air goes out”. Don’t let go of the hug and breathe together. Keep coaching your child as you breath. “Copy me: In… copy me Out… In… out… Copy me…”. Expect yawns within seconds. If you do this exercise following a crisis (lots of tears / tantrums / argument), carry on until you feel your child physically resets with a big shuddery breath.
- Humming, Chanting, singing: We don’t want to sing to the top of our heads and increase excitability. The purpose here is to activate the deep vocal cords to stimulate the Vagus nerve. Sit close in a hug, choose a gentle song and see if you can hum it together, avoid nursery rhymes or your child may wish to sing the words. Instead, choose a grown-up song heard on the radio and invite your child to join in. This exercise and the synchronised deep breathing will not only help children calm down but it will do wonders in strengthening their parental attachment.
Be the guardian of their fears
Fear is not just imagination gone wrong. It is an important primitive feeling necessary for survival. Without fear, none of us would live for very long, so it is important for children to recognise feelings of fear, and important for us parents to help them deal with such feelings and distinguish their range of importance. At Christmas time, we relish getting our children’s minds filled with wonder and anticipation but when wonder turns into alarm and anticipation turns into apprehension, Christmas night can become unpleasant for all.
Read on to learn why and how fear evolves through childhood and how to prevent problematic Christmas nights whilst allowing the Christmas magic to be felt.
Children develop an ability to fear as early as nine months old. At this age, fears are easily dealt with. For example, a baby might be scared by a bearded man dressed in red from head to toes if he is not used to facial hair and bright clothing. That fear will be short lived with no lasting effect: Babies live in the instant. A frightened baby will easily be comforted by a cuddling parent, especially if Santa is respectful and does not insist on making eye contact with him.
Fears start to be more consequential around two years old when a child enters the preoperational stage of cognitive development. At that point a child’s world is dominated by imaginary play. Prolific imagination coupled with an inability to fully understand situations is fertile ground for fears.
It is between three and seven years old that fears tend to be more problematic. It is an age window during which a child is able to understand the passing of time, able to invent, has an acute sense of observation, and is able to develop thoughts but does not have access to complex enough reasoning to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Past the age of seven years old, with access to complex reasoning, a child will start to put his own fears into context and deal with them in a more efficient manner.
Managing fears is a balancing act as fears need to be validated without being encouraged and children need to be supported and still learn to develop their own coping mechanisms. How parents help their children deal with their fears will have an impact on their personality development. Since fearing is natural and important, children who are not allowed to fear, and who are pushed to plough through their fears can grow up distrusting their emotions and developing internal conflicts about threats. This situation can snowball into anxiety in later years. A little bit of support and understanding earlier on in life will help your child develop self trust. On the other hand, if a child learns that the mention of fear triggers overprotective reactions from parents, he will soon learn to use it to his advantage in manipulative ways. For that reason, fears are tricky to deal with. Here are a few pointers to support your child:
Respect your child’s personality: Sensitivity is not a weakness. It is an ability to have acutely tuned senses. Sensitive children are more prone to fears. Over time they will learn to identify the magnitude of their fears and overcome them as their confidence grows. Confidence itself stems from a secure parental attachment. So: At home, sensitive children need to be able to trust their environment to relax, bring their barriers down. IF you have a sensitive child, do not play-scare them. Leave this to their friends. Don’t startle them or force them to face their fears without emotional support. You may think it will build their character, but it may simply teach them over time that home is not that safe. Children need safety to feel comfortable and fall asleep.
Keep the threats away, especially between the age of three and six years old: Children get very excited by the concept of Santa delivering presents, but come bedtime, the idea of having a fat old man creeping into their room to fill a stocking can really spook them badly. Instead of placing minced pies and carrots near the Christmas tree, place them outside your home. Instead of placing their stocking at the foot of the bed, place them near the Christmas tree. For school aged children, help them make a sign “Dear Santa, thank you for visiting. Please stay out of my room and help yourself to Brandy”
Avoid scary films just before bedtime: Home alone for example is a great film, a Christmas classic and most children will enjoy, laugh, and won’t think about it twice once the TV is off. But just in case, it would be a good idea to run the film just after lunch rather than before bedtime. It is not so much the sensory related frights that will resurface later but deeper fears such as having your home invaded by strangers, or even worse, being left behind by your parents.
If despite all your efforts to prevent fears on Christmas night, your child feels fearful, help them with the following techniques:
Comfort. This is the most obvious course of action. Comfort without losing sight of the fact it is bedtime. Help your child gently regather their focus of a comforting idea.
Don’t dismiss their feelings: Avoid “There’s nothing to be scared of” or anything like this. There is obviously something that scares your child and that is what matters.
Don’t shame them by saying “You are a big boy! You shouldn’t be scared”. No child chooses to be scared and if the fear is real, comments like these are no good for self-esteem.
Validate and redirect to positive thoughts: It is impossible to ask a child to stop thinking about something, you can only help them think about something else. A good way to validate your child’s emotions is to mirror them. Then you can redirect their thoughts: “I can see you are feeling worried, being worried is normal , do you remember the day that we went to the swimming pool and you were worried about the water, then you splashed and etc…..” Refer to tip #1 on how to help a child if the fear has reached panic level.
If your child is worried about a monster, Get your child involved in choosing an anti monster trick. You will find plenty of tricks online but the best one for your child is the one that will empower him. Make a few suggestions and see which one he chooses. The solution will work better if he takes part in implementing it. My youngest daughter’s favourite trick was to make a monster spray using lavender and mandarin essential oils, and a fine sprinkle of glitter.Both Lavender and mandarin are both excellent oils for soothing the nervous system.
Babies and children are emotional sponges. If you worry, they worry. Don’t let their fears rattle you. Keep calm, centred and kind, knowing that it will pass. If you let it rattle you, your child may sense that a display of “fear like” behaviour is a trigger to keep hold of you, then we no longer deal with fear but with manipulation.
Make yourself available
Christmas is intense. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get things right. In the process, we become somehow less accessible but still hope that our children will enjoy themselves fully. If they don’t, we may feel guilty about it, or even annoyed. Let’s keep sight of what (I believe) is the most important part of this festive period: Celebrating family unity, spending quality time with our children and nurturing their secure parental attachment. For this, we need to make ourselves truly available in a variety of ways: Physically, mentally and emotionally. Here are a few guidelines to make everybody’s christmas night easygoing.
All children are different. Some will be masters of independence and more “self sufficient” than others. Others will be needy, practically or emotionally, or both and that’s ok: It is a characteristic of childhood. You know your child better than anybody else. Be prepared to provide the support that is needed accordingly.
For all children from toddlerhood to Key stage 1 school age (included), the need for social interaction is huge . Consider it like a nutritive part of their development. The more you provide during the day, the least it will be needed at bedtime. If their need for parental interaction and respectful leadership isn’t met during the day with mentally and emotionally available parents, expect a display of rebellion or excessive “chatterboxiness” at bedtime or in the middle of the night.
Don’t expect bedtime to be the same as every night on Christmas night (See tips #1 and #2). So be ready, plan ahead. Have all your presents wrapped and ready before Christmas eve. Work as a team, delegate. If you know your child is wobbly at bedtime and needs your help to settle, make sure you physically don’t need to be elsewhere.
In tip #2, I explained how brain development dictates when children are able to differentiate fantasy from reality. It is common for children in year 1 and above to try and workout for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They trust what their parents tell them implicitly but their intelligence and complex reasoning tell them a different story. It is a difficult fight between head and heart. The chances of having a little one sneaking down the stairs at 10pm on Christmas eve is higher as the years go by. Be ready for tough questioning. For that reason, it might be a good idea to not get completely plastered 🙂
Stability and predictability: Two of the most important elements to support calm and confident children. They are two by-products of parenting consistency. Consistency isn’t just following set routines, it also involves leading children with respect and clear boundaries. To feel confident, children need to trust their environment and trust develops when a child knows what to expect . A child will learn to adapt to different situations as the years go by, but in the early years (up to Key stage 1 included), consistency is paramount to their emotional security. Christmas is by definition a very special time in the calendar. Comings and goings of friends and family members, new surroundings, unusual activities and excitement bring change to their routine. Children who struggle with change will benefit from your extra care in providing consistency. Read on to find out how to provide consistency.
As much as possible, both parents need to be on the same page and act as a parental unit with all aspects of consistency. Parents can still line up their parenting approach regardless of their personality differences. This requires team work and communication skills.
To support a child’s sleep, consider that their body clock is influenced by three elements: exposure to light, food intake and sleep. The first step in protecting your child’s sleep predictability is to protect and respect their natural body clock. Respect meal times, and sleep times. Do not delay a child’s mealtime, nap time or bedtime to accommodate your own or work around activities if your child is not adaptable.
Children learn a huge amount from their parents’ emotional responses. They learn which behaviours are acceptable, which behaviours are not and they build their emotional intelligence along the way. When the same parent gives opposite emotional responses to the same behaviour repeatedly , it is confusing to the child who may learn over the years to ignore emotional responses and lack empathy as a result.
Boundaries make children feel safe. When children have to deal with unexpected changed, their sense of security can be dented. An insecure child will automatically look for boundaries. Here are the key elements to successful boundary settings:
- Set achievable boundaries, don’t be too demanding.
- Communicate with simple words, short sentences, using positive sentence structures. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want.
- Use visuals and point out the physical boundaries to support behavioural boundaries.
- Follow through with positive or negative consequences.
- Stand your ground but don’t shout or blackmail. NEVER shame.
Knowing what comes next is incredibly reassuring for a child. The predictability of everyday events is especially important for children who don’t have a concept of time (under the age of three) or only have an abstract concept of time (usually up to 5 years old). Keep routines as predictable as possible. For sensitive children especially, try not to deviate from their traditional bedtime routine. They will feel secure in the process.
Get some fresh air before bedtime
Going for a walk on Christmas eve afternoon has many benefits: Physical, neurological and emotional. So don’t hold back: Put on your Welly boots, hats and scarves and go for a stroll. The purpose of this outing is NOT to exhaust your children so if a child already shows signs of tiredness, help them out by walking to their pace, holding their hands, carrying them on your shoulders for a while or bring out the wheels (scooter or buggy). This little trip around the block will do wonders for the whole family. It will oxygenate the brain, help get rid of muscle tension, blow the cobwebs and reset the moods. Fresh air will also sooth your nervous system (see tip#1) and help boost your serotonin level. I recommend a good half an hour outdoors. If going for a walk is not an option, go in your garden to play a game, or open your windows. Above all, stay safe.
Don't reduce naps or delay bedtime
Reducing naps or delaying bedtime may feel to you like the most logical thing to plan in order to promote deeper sleep at night or longer sleep the following morning. Unfortunately, the consequences of cutting naps or keeping children up beyond their natural window of night-start have the opposite effects especially on children who thrive on consistency. As a young body goes beyond tiredness, its natural response is to produce two coping hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. They are the same hormones that will kick start your child’s day early the next morning as soon as the presence of melatonin in the body is weak. Melatonin is a sleep inducing hormone produced throughout the night until about 4am to 5am. The best possible course of action to avoid early rising or long sporadic night wakes is to keep our children’s sleep schedules as ordinary as possible and adapt to their needs.