Sleep. It seems like the simplest thing in the world. At the end of the day, lie down, close your eyes, and drift off into blissful, restful, refreshing sleep.
Only, for many of us, and for our children, it doesn’t work that way at all.
It turns out, sleep isn’t simple at all. It’s a complex neurological process. Lots of different things have to go right for you, or your child, to fall asleep and stay asleep. And only one of them has to go wrong to disrupt the process.
And because sleep is a neurological process, kids with neurological differences – ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, and so on – all seem to struggle with sleep.
My kids are all grown now. But when they were young, sleep was a huge issue in our house. They didn’t sleep easily. They didn’t sleep well. And kids who aren’t getting enough sleep – it’s a problem. They struggle to manage their behavior. They struggle to learn. They struggle with pretty much everything, until they can get enough sleep.
And so do their parents. Because if your kids aren’t sleeping, chances are, neither are you.
I tried everything to help my kids sleep. I talked to other parents whose kids didn’t sleep. I talked to other adults who struggled with sleep. From them, I learned a few things that sometimes work for some people. But I also learned that nothing works for everyone.
It takes some trial and error to figure out what will help. Here are some things you can try, if you, or your child, struggles with sleep.
Get more sleep
Yeah, I know. If you have a child who never sleeps, how on earth are you going to get them to sleep more?
Start with an earlier bedtime.
Seriously. When you get overtired, but you can’t go to bed, your body starts kicking out hormones to help you stay awake. You know that feeling, of course. That “second wind” that let you stay up late to study for an exam in college, or drive home safely after an evening event. The same thing happens to kids. And once you’ve got the second wind, you can’t fall asleep until you’ve used up all the “stay awake” hormones your body pumped out.
That’s why keeping your kids awake later, hoping they’ll sleep later, doesn’t work. (At least, it doesn’t for most people. It never did for my kids. If I kept them up later, they just woke up earlier!)
Try moving your child’s bedtime back by 30 minutes a night every night until they’re falling asleep easily and waking up bright-eyed and happy. The guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation provide a target.
It’s not going to be easy to hit the targets. If everyone in your house has to be up by 6 in the morning, to get to school and work on time, your 4-year-old may need to be in bed by 6, and your 9-year-old by 8. That’s going to be really hard for a lot of families. It might be impossible for some. Just do what you can, and make it a priority.
Get more fresh air and sunshine
To sleep well, your children (and you!) need plenty of physical exercise. Preferably outdoors, in the sunlight. Ideally, exercise that works up a sweat and makes you tired.
If your child who never sleeps attends school, find out what they do for PE and recess. Find out how active they are at daycare. If they play organized games, they may spend more time standing around waiting for their turn than they do being active. And standing around waiting for their turn won’t help them sleep at night.
It’s better if the exercise isn’t too close to bedtime. If it doesn’t happen during the day, you’ll have to find a way to fit it in at home. If everyone gets home at 6, and bedtime is at 7, then an evening exercise session might not work. But maybe your kids can get some exercise in the morning – walking to and from school, if that’s possible where you live, might be a good place to start. Maybe you can talk to the adults at school and at daycare, and find out what they can do to help increase your kids’ activity.
More exercise will improve your child’s sleep (and yours, too!). And it has loads of other benefits for your health and well-being.
Create a sleep-promoting bedroom
You want your child’s bedroom (and your own) to be a good place for sleep. That means no electronics in the room. None. No television. No computer. No cell phone. Nothing that flashes or beeps or buzzes. Except an alarm clock, for children who are responsible for getting themselves up in the morning.
Make sure the room is cool, quiet, and dark.
Quiet and cool
How cool is cool? Most sleep experts recommend something between 60 and 68 degrees (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). In the summer, that might be hard to achieve. A fan might help. In the winter, turn your thermostat down well before bedtime, so there’s time for the house to cool before bedtime.
If you can’t create a quiet room, create peaceful, soothing sounds to mask the noise. If you got a fan to help cool the room, use the fan to create white noise. Or try recorded nature sounds, or calm, flowing instrumental music. One of my kids particularly liked listening to a recording of Japanese shakuhachi music. Try different things to see what works.
Manage the light
If your child isn’t comfortable with the sudden transition from bright light to dark, get a sunrise simulator that also includes a sunset or dusk simulation. (Most of them do, but they’re not cheap, so be sure before you buy.) The dusk simulation turns the light off gradually over a period of time. Your child’s eyes will adjust to the growing darkness, so the transition will be easy. And by the time the room is dark, the child will (hopefully!) be asleep.
If your child is particularly sensitive to light, consider reducing the amount of light in the house starting a couple of hours before bedtime. Instead of bright ceiling lights, use dimmer switches, lamps with lower wattage bulbs, and task lighting. Bright overhead light is energizing. It tells your brain, “It’s still daytime!” So mute that message by lowering the light.
Don’t punish your children by sending them to their room. That gives the room negative associations. You want the room to be associated with calmness and sleep.
If your child is still wide awake after 20 minutes in bed, let them get out of bed and do something quiet and restful for 20 minutes, then go back to bed.
Create a consistent bedtime routine
Yeah, I know. When my kids were little, and didn’t sleep, I wanted to punch people who told me this. Of course we had a consistent bedtime routine!
But I’m including it because it’s important. Do the same things, in the same order, at the same time, every. single. night. Even weekends. Don’t rush it. Include a story. Include prayers. If your child struggles with sleep, a consistent routine will not be enough. But it’s a good place to start.
Difficulty staying asleep
Some children get hungry during the night, hungry enough that it interferes with their sleep. They might not realize that they’re hungry. They’re just awake. If your child falls asleep reasonably well, but can’t stay asleep, consider giving them a high-fat, high-protein snack at bedtime. A handful of nuts, perhaps, or a small bit of yogurt, or a piece of cheese. If they sleep better, make a snack part of their bedtime routine.
Caffeine keeps some people from falling asleep. Others fall asleep just fine, but the caffeine makes it hard for them to stay asleep. In either case, if you have a child who never sleeps, avoid caffeine 8 to 12 hours before bedtime.
And if your child takes any prescription medications, ask the doctor if the meds could be interfering with your child’s sleep. You might need to change when a dose is given, or switch to a different drug.
A few other things to try
Besides vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, your body has a sense called proprioception. Proprioception tells your brain where your body is in space. People with poor proprioception are often clumsy. They may be “sensory” kids. And they often have trouble with sleep. It’s as if, when they start drifting off, their brain says, “Oh, no! Where’d my body go!” and their body has to move around to let their brain know where they are. And sleep just doesn’t happen.
This was absolutely the case for one of my non-sleeping kids. An occupational therapist suggested we try heavy blankets. Not heavy as in warm. Heavy as in weighs a lot. A heavy old quilt with wool batting, or an wool army blanket folded over a couple of times may do. You can also buy weighted blankets, designed to provide weight without warmth.
My child is now in her late 20s, and her “ten ton blanket of doom” is still absolutely essential to her sleep. When she traveled overseas, she chose to bring one suitcase for clothes and such, and one for her heavy blanket. It’s that important to her sleep.
A simple relaxation technique that helps me fall asleep is slow deep breathing. Breathe in slowly and deeply to a count of 7. Hold your breath for another count of 7. Breathe out slowly to another count of 7. Repeat three or four times. (Or pray “Lord, have mercy” three times instead of counting.) You won’t fall asleep instantly – at least, I don’t. But it’s amazing how much more quickly sleep comes.
It’s not just an old wive’s tale. Real, solid research shows that the smell of lavender essential oil promotes sleep. Apply a few drops to a handkerchief that you tuck inside the child’s pillow case, or use an aromatherapy diffuser. You can also spritz your child’s bedding (or your own) with lavender linen spray. And at bathtime, you can use lavender-scented shampoo and soap. Read the label to make sure you’re using lavender essential oil and not fragrance oil, and that any lavender-scented products are scented with the real thing. “Fragrance” might smell like lavender, but it isn’t likely to have the same effect.
Of course, anything that affects the brain can have the opposite effect in some people. If your child finds lavender energizing, try roman chamomile, ylang ylang, bergamot, or sandalwood. But be safe. Don’t use essential oils internally. If you want to apply them to the skin, blend them into a carrier oil. Don’t use them “straight.”
If you’ve tried all of this, and none of it helps, it’s time to talk to the doctor. A host of medical conditions can interfere with sleep. If your child has iron-deficiency anemia, mild asthma, enlarged adenoids, apnea, or reflux, or if you do, nothing is going to make a difference until you treat the underlying condition.
As a last resort, you might talk to your doctor about using sleep-promoting medication or supplements.
They do grow up
If nothing works, just remember: the nights are long, but the years are short. Your child who never sleeps will grow up. Even if she never, ever sleeps through the night, at some point, her sleep won’t be yours to manage. In the mean time, do what you can to take care of yourself.
And don’t forget to pray! Whether you say the Jesus prayer, or breathe heartfelt pleas to your child’s patron saint, to St. Nicholas of Myra, patron of children, or to St. Joseph, guardian of our Lord, you’ll find comfort and help from the saints who love you and pray for you.
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus: These seven saints dozed off in a cave and didn’t wake up for almost two hundred years.
Disability and special needs: People sometimes feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Goodnight Jesus: A Review: A baby’s bedtime routine includes kissing everyone goodnight, from Jesus and St. George to the goldfish.