Most people think sleep training is for babies and toddlers, but I’m noticing increasingly more elementary school-aged children needing sleep training help. Today we’ll talk about how you can approach sleep training an older child.
If you have been following me on Instagram, you’d know that I recently had to sleep train my 8-year-old! His sleep regressed after I was hospitalized and then we immediately went into quarantine for Covid 19. He was getting out of bed so many times overnight. Just like many other parents, this snowballed after he started worrying about his health and we started providing bedtime reassurance and it snowballed from there. Some nights he was getting out to express complaints or worries or to use the toilet more times than I can count on one hand. So, I decided to sleep train. He was tired, I was tired, and it wasn’t sustainable.
This experience led me to want to write about sleep training an elementary school-aged child, because I know I’m not the only one who has needed to take action and improve their elementary school-aged child.
What causes sleep problems at this age?
Anxiety and worry.
It’s no surprise that with everything that is happening in the world that elementary school-aged kids experience fears and anxiety. They are seeing and hearing conversations or watching things on TV. This can translate into them having difficulty falling asleep while these thoughts and feelings crowd their minds.
Inconsistent or inappropriate schedule.
As we quarantine normal sleep schedules may be falling on the wayside given, we don’t need to get up each day at a certain time to get to school. But even during times where we aren’t quarantining sleep schedules can be one of the biggest culprits for sleep problems in elementary school students. Kids this age can have a lot on their plate from extracurricular activities, play dates, and more and more homework. This can lead to inconsistent bedtimes depending on the schedule for the day and later bedtimes than appropriate. Elementary school students still need A LOT of sleep – between 10-12 hours. A lot of kids this age just aren’t getting that much. When kids are sleep deprived it can be even harder to fall asleep and stay asleep overnight.
Feeling like they can’t sleep.
This is a BIG one and happened to my son. After he started getting up for comfort and to express his worries, it became a habit. He then got to the point where he felt like he couldn’t sleep. And do you know what? It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The average person – both big and small take – takes 15-20 minutes to fall asleep. But if you lack confidence you can do it, or spend your time thinking you can’t, then this 15-20 minutes can feel like a lifetime and can cause a child to seek other things to do that delay sleep. It can also leave to a vicious cycle being too worried they can’t fall asleep and therefore take so long, and then start to become too overtired to fall asleep. This is really what happened to my son and it took time to fix his confidence and his overtiredness.
How to help them sleep better.
Improve the sleep schedule.
Prioritize a consistent bedtime for your child. My suggestion is for a child 8 years and under to go to bed at 8 pm or before. The exact time may depend on what time they generally wake for the day. A child 9 years and above will likely need a slightly later bedtime but no later than 9 pm. I suggest bedtime stays the same even on weekends because this helps with keeping their circadian rhythm on a consistent schedule and doesn’t run the risk of tiredness going into the school week.
Fix issues with the sleep environment.
Having a sleep environment conducive to sleep is incredibly important. As we move towards summertime and it is still light outside later at night and the sun rises earlier in the morning, kids can find it difficult to sleep as well when light is pouring through the window. Don’t hesitate to add extra blackout protection to help them. Darkness triggers the production of melatonin, which is so important when it comes to sleep.
A sound machine can also be helpful to aid in sleep. This will block out noises from the outside environment – including noises you make as you potter around the house or watch some TV before your bedtime.
Removing technology from the bedroom can also be helpful. TVs, computers, and phones can suppress the production of Melatonin as well as be enticing ways to delay going to sleep.
Handling bedtime behavior.
Depending on what behavior, you are experiencing at bedtime you will need a plan of attack. If your child is expressing lots of worries or fears, it might be helpful to plan in some pre-bedtime time to talk through what’s on their mind, so they are less likely to get up and express them when they should be concentrating on sleep.
Alternatively, if they are getting up a lot to delay bedtime or pee more than is truly needed you may need to sit down and talk through sleep rules and what your plan will be if they aren’t followed. While sleep training my 8-year-old I planned to not engage in conversation, shut the door, and have him return to bed on his own. This was a modified version of silent returns. He was well aware of the plan before we started, so it was no surprise when it happened.
Give your child confidence.
Let your child see and feel your confidence in them that they can fall asleep and follow their sleep rules. Let them know that they have a healthy brain that can do this sleep thing, they just might need some practice. Celebrate small improvements each day, and this will help increase their confidence and have them reaching for bigger improvements as the days progress.
If you are struggling with your older child’s sleep and think sleep training is in your future, please don’t feel like you have to struggle alone. There are things you can do to get their sleep back on track. Please reach out to Little Big Dreamers and we can discuss how we can help you out with the process.