My daughter slept well as a baby and has never really had any problems sleeping. She had the odd nightmare, usually triggered by a graphic in a film she was sensitive to. But other than that no major problems.
Looking back the problem started to show itself around age 6 – 7. We had recently moved house and she began to show signs of ‘awareness of her vulnerability in the world’. I remember she came home from school one day telling me that the fire alarm had gone off. It had frightened her because one of the adults hadn’t remained calm and was quite vocal.
Around that time, she began to worry a little at bedtime, asking questions like, “What if our smoke alarm goes off?” or “What if someone breaks into our house?”. We reassured her, making light of it, but it didn’t really help so I researched it and what she needed was to be SHOWN how safe she was, to actually properly talk about the safety measures in the house (locks on windows etc). This did help and she settled down, but I remember now that even back then, she didn’t like it when it was time for us, her parents, to go to bed. I now realise that she was frightened of being the only one in the house awake but she couldn’t articulate that then.
Two years on
It never really became a problem until recently. We had to move out of our house for five months while some work was being done on it, we rented a nice house and then moved back into our new, improved home. Whilst in the the rented house, she had her own bedroom and began to show signs of stress again at bedtime. She would say things like, I miss you (to me, her mummy). I didn’t worry too much but just kept reassuring her. On a few occasions I’d let her come into our bed (when we had just got in and I was reading) and she would snuggle up and fall asleep instantly, then a little later we’d cart her back to her own bed. I now realise that that made her feel safe at the time but did nothing for her confidence in sleeping alone, I wasn’t giving her the signal: you are capable of soothing yourself in your own bed.
The problem was forgotten a little when, on a whim one day, we were having a change around of bedroom furniture and decided it would be fun for the children to share a bedroom for a little while, they’d never done it (not since being babies) and they both jumped at the chance, the novelty.
Safety in numbers
She was fine falling asleep in the same room as her twin brother, occasionally she would come down saying she couldn’t get to sleep, but with a nudge she’d go back up and go to sleep.
Separate rooms again
After much deliberation, we all decided that it would be best for everyone, if the children had their own room again when we moved back into our own house. They were both on board and excited.
Worries surface again
Pretty much straight away she struggled to settle at bedtime. She was coming down after 8pm complaining of either not being able to get to sleep or of falling asleep and then waking up feeling anxious. This was every night. It was getting later and later. 10.30, 11pm. I realised, I’d been so busy with builders and moving back into the house, that I hadn’t given this issue the thought it needed. She needed some support.
Support for her
I did some digging around online and found that it is very common around 8 years old that children develop an awareness of their own vulnerability and can become anxious.
I found a great website resource Help your child sleep alone and felt instantly that this would help. A Psychologist couple in America give advice to help children with bedtime fears to sleep alone. The main principle is routine, helping your child to feel secure but also teaching them that they can and must soothe themselves. Also looking at your part in it and recognising when you need help in order to help them. Together with (and most significant for us) the ‘back in ten’ technique, that cracked it for her, virtually instantly. This is simply telling your child that you will check back with them in ten minutes. You repeat this until they’re asleep.
The first night we implemented all of this, she was asleep before we had chance to come back for the first ten minute check. We felt much more positive straight away. The next morning, she was over the moon, she felt a great sense of achievement but also relief.
The next few nights were up and down. But mainly down, the falling asleep was difficult again and it was getting late. There were tears and worry on her part and on ours, I was starting to wonder if we needed to think about seeing a counsellor. (A friend of mine with grown up children was telling me recently that taking her daughter, when she was 8, who had never really slept properly, to see a counsellor was the best £40 she had ever spent.)
But then it occurred to me that in her desperation to get to sleep before the rest of us, she had purposely not been reading before trying to go to sleep, because she just wanted to try to get to sleep as soon as possible!
When I realised this, I had a chat with her and explained that reading before bed is such a great way to relax your mind and get you ready for sleep. I told her that I find it the perfect way to get myself ready for sleep and that I thought it was really worth her trying it again. She took my advice and sure enough it worked, the next night she was asleep within a couple of checks. It’s been two weeks now and it has improved hugely, asleep within three checks every night.
We have made sure that we maintain this routine, to give her confidence in the knowledge of what to expect each night and we have made sure we stick to the ‘back in ten’ technique. We hope to phase it out at some point but won’t rush that.
It’s been absolutely exhausting, but worth it. It’s so upsetting to see your child so full of anxiety and to feel powerless to do anything to help. I’m grateful to the psychologist who posted this valuable information. So grateful.
If you have had a similar experience, please get in touch, maybe your child is older and you have the benefit of hindsight. I’d very much like to hear from you.
Does your child have any sleep issues? Maybe I’ve been there and can help you, please let me know by commenting below or email me via the contact page, I personally respond to every email I get.