By Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW
Most parents are familiar with sleep-related issues in infants and toddlers. Developmentally, it is normal for babies to wake up every few hours. Toddlers can also struggle with sleep issues – especially while toilet training.
Overall, most sleep-related issues dissipate as children grow older. But what happens when a child who is normally an excellent sleeper begins having issues during elementary school?
Recently, we have been working through sleep issues with our 8-year-old. I first contacted our pediatrician for advice, who told us it is common for elementary school aged kids to have trouble sleeping. She explained that at this age kids start to understand more about the world around them and can become prone to anxieties and worries, which can play out prior to going to bed.
Kids at this age may start to have more vivid nightmares. A recurring nightmare our daughter mentioned was someone breaking into the house. Fears such as these can be common, especially when they see frightening themes introduced on television. It’s important to monitor screen time to make sure your child is watching age-appropriate content.
One of the tips our pediatrician recommended was developing a behavior reward system. She recommended giving our daughter a “hall pass.” She was allowed to use this hall pass to get out of bed three times each night, but after that she would have a consequence.
Another tip for parents is to talk to your child about potential underlying issues. Ask your child if they are worried, scared, or having nightmares. In our case, we discovered that we had the most issues on Monday before school or before a big event our daughter was nervous about.
Talk to your children about ways to cope with their worries. We kept some Pop-It toys by her bed and taught her some breathing exercises to help her calm down when worried. It is also important to normalize your child’s feelings. I told my daughter it is normal to worry about unfamiliar situations and shared that I feel these emotions too. The point is to help your child feel less alone by explaining that even adults struggle with these things.
The most important aspect of sleep training is to establish a consistent bedtime routine. Most parents will give their child a bath, read a book, and put their child to bed. It is also important to limit technology use. When our daughter watched television or played on her tablet before bed, she had more trouble sleeping.
If you decide to initiate a consequence based on their behavior, make sure you follow through. I, like many parents, sometimes have trouble with this. When you are exhausted it can be hard to follow through with negative consequences, but your child will learn they can continue negative behaviors if you don’t follow through.
Lastly, know that this phase will pass, just like when you had an infant that only slept for an hour at a time at night. It may have felt like it would never end, but it did. This too shall pass.