Bedtime Routine for Kids Who Have a Hard Time Falling Asleep at Night

Dear Dr. Laura,
My almost eight-year-old daughter has a very hard time falling asleep at night. Right now it is worse than ever as I am trying to get her out of the summer routine and back into a school routine. We will have to wake up around 6:30 a.m. for school. I have been waking her up earlier, hoping that she will fall asleep earlier at night but it seems to be back-firing. Even though I start the bedtime routine around 8:30 p.m. she isn't falling asleep until around 10:15. It is making us both very anxious and she keeps saying "I can't sleep. My body feels too cuckoo." I would like some advice on how to get her to sleep now and even during the school year. I've tried kid yoga videos, I scratch her back, I read books, sing, I do everything. She is now exhausted in the day and is acting very hyper-active and revved up but I know she is really just tired out. I'd appreciate any ideas now and in general as this is an ongoing problem. Thanks. Nina

Dear Nina,
Some kids just have a harder time relaxing and falling asleep than other children.

It could be that your daughter just doesn't need that much sleep. But I suspect the opposite. You say that she is exhausted during the day and is acting hyperactive and revved up. it sounds to me like your daughter may be over-tired, which actually makes it harder to relax.

When humans get over-tired, we have to keep ourselves going by releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin into our bloodstreams. So when a child is over-tired, she might be swamped by those biochemicals, which stay in the bloodstream for a long time (meaning more than 24 hours.)

So what can you do? Here are seven tips that should help.

1. Aim for a much earlier bedtime. How early? If you have to wake her up, she is not getting enough sleep. Since your goal is a 6:30am wake-up, and kids her age need an average of 10.5 hours of sleep, her body probably needs to be asleep by 8 pm. If she's one of those kids who doesn't need as much sleep, then maybe it can be a bit later, but if you have to wake her in the morning, then you already know that she is not getting enough sleep. So use her morning waking as a guide, meaning that you should keep moving her bedtime earlier until she is able to wake up on her own at 6:30am.

2. To get from here to there, keep waking her earlier
(aiming for 6:30am). It's true that this increases her over-tiredness, but it will get her onto the schedule you need more quickly. You will just have to be patient and understanding when she is cranky. (You might just bite the bullet and start waking her at 6:30am now to get her onto the schedule, because that would make her exhaustion outweigh her stress hormones. But that may be too hard for your family.)

3. Start the bedtime routine MUCH earlier. Since she needs to be asleep by 8pm, you want lights off by 7:30pm. I know that right now that sounds like a terrible idea, since she is not falling asleep until 10:15pm. But I suspect that since you aren't starting the bedtime routine until after 8pm, she is having to keep herself wired just to keep her eyes open. So I suspect that if you wake her at 6:30am, start the bedtime routine at 7pm, and turn lights off at 7:30pm, she is likely to fall asleep by 8pm with little trouble.

4. Think through your daily routine to consider how your daughter's entire day contributes to her sleep readiness. For instance:

Afternoon-

  • Physical activity. Kids NEED to be physically active, and research shows that they really do sleep much more readily when they've had an hour or three to run around outside and breathe fresh air. (By comparison, mental stimulation and screens get kids wound up and keep them from falling asleep.) 
  •  
  • Laughter. When children are wound up, they often need to laugh or cry to let off that tension. And all children get wound up in the course of their day, just like adults do. So roughhouse with her every afternoon to get her laughing. That actually decreases the stress hormones in her body, and increases the happy, bonding hormones! Of course, don't do this right before bedtime or it will make it harder for her to calm down.

  • No screen time. You want her body to begin making melatonin. The light from TVs, Ipads, Computers and Mobile Phones keeps the body from making melatonin. 

  • Stimulants.  You probably already know that caffeine stays in the body for 8 to 14 hours, so cola, coffee ice cream and other caffeinated foods and drinks are never a good idea for kids. In addition, I urge you to NOT serve dessert except on weekends or special occasions. Many kids cannot handle sugar in the evening without getting wired. Fresh fruit in moderation is probably okay for most kids.

5. Be sure you have a regular bedtime routine that helps your daughter relax. The routine should also include activities that her body will come to associate with sleep, which will trigger her body to release sleep hormones like melatonin. For instance:

6:30pm- Bath. Make this a relaxing time of the day.

  • Add a calming aromatherapy scent to the water. Maybe your daughter could choose between lavender, vanilla, and jasmine. Smell is very primal and bypasses the thinking brain to trigger associations, including relaxation.

  • You might also give her a relaxing hand rub while you ask her to tell you one good thing about her day, and something she is looking forward to tomorrow. 

7pm- Bedroom

  • Dim the lights.

  • Tuck in stuffed animals

  • Read two stories or a chapter. Make sure the stories are not too exciting. They need to be enjoyable but not anxiety-producing. 

7:30- Lights out.

  • Turn on a lullabye CD so that she forms a sleep association and when she hears it she begins to get sleepy. Choose carefully. She will use this for years, so you both have to like it. Get the longest one you can find, so it won't end just as she falls asleep. The music will form a sleep association that helps her fall asleep every time she hears it. 

  • Tap her acupressure points and give her positive messages about how relaxed she is: "Even though you were a little wound up, now you are relaxing." See the page on my website on using EFT to help kids relax kids for more on how to do this. EFT has been proven to be very relaxing; I personally have often used it with my family members to help them sleep.

  • Use progressive relaxation to teach her to consciously relax her body: "Notice your feet...they feel so relaxed and heavy ....they are sinking into the bed....Now notice your ankles, they are so heavy...." Work your way up her body in a relaxed voice. 

6. Use a guided relaxation audio.  Some people find that their mind still races and they can't sleep, even with music. If your daughter turns out to be one of those people, try a guided relaxation CD. These are designed to help the child fall asleep, unlike regular audio books, which are designed to be exciting.

There are probably many others, these are just three I know about. I would recommend investing in a couple and trying out different ones. If they work, they are worth their weight in gold.

7. If all else fails, snuggle up with her. Kids always fall asleep faster when an adult lies with them. You won't have to do this forever. Once she gets used to falling asleep quickly, you won't even have to lie down with her. But while you are getting her past her over-tiredness and onto a good schedule, it may work wonders. If you fall asleep, don't worry about it. You'll get up early, well-rested, and can do the dishes then!

I hope this is helpful, and I wish you and your daughter Sweet Dreams. Please let me know how it goes!

warmly,
Dr. Laura

Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you so much. I tried this last night (although later than 7:30) and she fell asleep 30 minutes earlier. I was able to wake up earlier this morning, too. (I still need a gong or something. : - )

I know EFT but never thought to try it on her. I did a little last night and it did seem to help her relax. (Me too.) I will keep doing that and try the CDs, as well.

Thanks for this advice! I found it really helpful.

Nina

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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