Dr. Stanley Coren has written a book on sleep deprivation, Sleep Thieves, and says his research shows that “for each hour under eight hours of sleep, you lose one point in IQ. And for every hour below seven you can lose two points of IQ.” Since children are required 10-12 hours of sleep a night, if your child isn’t sleeping, chances are he isn’t able to think very clearly. Sleep is not only responsible for thinking but studies also show it can lead to depression. The point is, if your child isn’t sleeping well, everything else will be thrown off, too.
In working with parents, the first question I ask is “How does your child sleep?” If the answer is “okay” or “well”, we move on and talk about their child’s anxiety. If the answer is “not well” or “not much at all” we must address the sleep issue first. That’s because everything else is built on the assumption that children are able to rest at night. When anxious kids rest, they are able to hit the “reset button” and start fresh the next day. If they can’t, they end up with continual anxiety that is harder for them to manage.
If your child is having difficulty sleeping, follow the steps below:
1. Take the pressure off of your child. Instead of focusing on bedtime, focus on helping your child become relaxed. When you put pressure on kids to fall asleep, it creates energy rather than removing energy. The extra energy causes kids to get ramped up again and they have even more difficulty falling asleep. Instead, create relaxing routines such as having story time, playing relaxing music and putting an eye pillow over your child’s eyes. Warm wash clothes are also useful as they help the muscles in the face relax. These routines help the body know when it’s time to fall asleep and remove pressure from your child to figure out how to fall asleep on his own.
2. Designate a “relaxing” area in the bedroom. “If you can’t sleep, get up.” This is a general rule of thumb for people who struggle with insomnia. This rule is the same for kids. If your child can’t sleep, instead of coming to your room to let you know, it’s better for him to stay in his own bedroom and try going to another spot to relax. The relaxing area should have books, paper for drawing, music, pillows, etc. *If these activities give your child more energy, remove them. The idea here is to help your child relax by getting his mind off of trying to sleep.
3. Go to your child, instead of your child coming to you. This is the hardest step because it requires parents to get up to take their child back to his/her bedroom. The hardest habit to break is your child sleeping with you. Kids love to sleep with parents and if allowed, many would never go back to their own beds. So before the habit starts, walk your child back to his bedroom and lay down with him until he falls back to sleep. Once he has, go back to your bed and try to get some sleep yourself. Although this is harder on parents, it is more helpful for kids to work out their sleep problems in their own bed rather than escaping them by sleeping with you.
For more tools on how to help anxious kids sleep, check out Why Smart Kids Worry.