Sleep Struggles: Helping Kids Master Self-Soothing SkillsApr 20, 2023
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Getting your child to bed (and asleep for the night) is often easier said than done. And while it can be super frustrating for us as parents, it’s pretty hard for our kids, too. One of the best ways to overcome common sleep struggles is by helping our kids master self-soothing skills.
Today, you’ll learn why getting to sleep and staying asleep is so challenging for kids at different ages and stages and strategies to help make bedtime a little smoother.
Our goal is to help them fall asleep on their own, stay asleep, and then put themselves back to sleep if they wake up. There are a lot of ways to do it, and there is no timeline.
Why Kids Resist Bedtime
You may not be surprised to hear me say that kids’ ability to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own at bedtime has a lot to do with regulating their emotions.
There are a few common emotional situations that come up at bedtime.
For many kids, it’s as simple as this: Bedtime means the end of everything good. It’s the end of playtime, time with you and all the fun things.
They might also experience fear, disconnection and loneliness being on their own in the dark and quiet.
Sometimes, our kids have too much energy. Maybe they didn’t get enough movement during the day or spent a lot of time on screens. They’re just not feeling tired.
And even though it sounds counterintuitive, kids who are overtired also have a hard time at bedtime. When they’re overtired but still awake, the brain kicks into a state of alertness, and it can be really difficult to settle the nervous system.
Common Sleep Struggles
When your child is feeling lonely, sad or afraid (or just disappointed the fun had to end), those feelings come out in all kinds of behaviors.
Not wanting you to leave, jack in the box, calling out, taking a long time to fall asleep, night, waking and being afraid of monsters are all really common challenges between the ages of 2 and 5 years old.
Then maybe you get to a point around age 4 or 5 where your kid is sleeping great…but then something changes. They start waking up again in the night. What happened?!
Between ages 5 and 7, dreams start showing up, and kids can remember their dreams after they wake up. So not only do they have the fear from the dream they just had, they are afraid that they will have those nightmares again if they go back to sleep.
This is also the age where kids start to be more aware of the world around them and understand that there are things out in the world that can hurt them and that you can’t always be watching them (including when they’re sleeping).
How To Help Kids Self-Soothe
The first thing I encourage you to do when your kid is struggling to fall asleep on their own is to validate that this is hard for them.
Learning to fall asleep is hard. Being separated from your parents is hard. It’s dark, they’re alone, they don’t get to play or be with you. Bedtime is hard.
You don’t have to change this circumstance. You can just acknowledge it and validate how they are feeling.
Then, you can set limits. This looks like saying, “Your feelings make sense, but what are you going to do about it? You have to stay in your bed, so what can you do to help yourself feel safe? What can you do to help yourself feel less scared?”
Maybe it’s a simple fix like a night light or a noise machine, or leaving something of yours with them for comfort.
I love the option of inviting your child to sleep in a little bed made of blankets in your room as long as they don’t wake you up.
With kids that are a little older, especially around ages 5-7, remember that they might be experiencing fear of things like robbers, a house fire, etc.
In this case, talk to them about those fears and share the ways that you are keeping them safe. Remind them that their bad dreams aren’t real. You can use a worry jar or some visualization to help them calm their minds for sleep.
Other Sleep Strategies
Regulate your own emotions
You know what doesn’t help your kids fall asleep? Guilt trips, lectures, yelling and threats.
Rather than teaching your kid to self-soothe, these strategies actually activate their stress response and make it even harder to fall asleep.
Kids who are feeling afraid, worried or stressed need calm parents. So working on your own emotional regulation is going to be really helpful.
Your family’s bedtime routine can be whatever you want it to be. Keeping that routine the same as often as you can signals to the brain that we're going to sleep soon.
New Sleep Disruptions
If your child has had a good sleep routine, and suddenly they start to get up a lot or resist going to sleep, it’s probably temporary.
These disruptions can happen for lots of reasons, like a developmental leap, changes in the family (e.g. new baby, moving, divorce, etc.) or at school.
Look for clues of what else could be going on when they are having sleep trouble and having a curious conversation with them about it.
Consider what they’ve been watching. Is there a new storyline in their favorite show that might be bringing up fear or other big feelings? When possible, set a limit of no screens in the hour leading up to bedtime.
Try big body movement before bed. As a mom of two rambunctious boys, this one saved me! They needed to get those wiggles out.
Remember, sleep is complicated. Don’t judge yourself when new struggles pop up. Try some different approaches and get curious about what will work for your family and your child at their current stage of development.
- Why kids resist bedtime at different ages
- Why you might see disruptions in sleep after things have been going well
- Examples of what to say to your child when they struggle to fall asleep
- Ideas for limit-setting at bedtime
- Lots of ideas for how to calm your child’s fears and teach them to self-soothe
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