Big Kid Sleeping Troubles
I know you give great sleep advice for babies and toddlers, but can you help with my ten-year-old daughter?
She’s always been an early riser (6am is normal) but until recently she reliably went to sleep at around 8:30pm. In the last few weeks though we’ve had a run of nights where she’s still wide awake at 10 or 11pm. My husband and I start out sympathetic, giving cuddles and reassurance before sending her back to bed. But by the fifth or sixth time she’s come out of her room to tell us she can’t sleep we’re just cross and grumpy. I keep telling her that I don’t have any magic ability to send her to sleep, she just has to lie there until it happens. She’s a hugely extroverted kid though so I do recognize that lying awake in the dark for hours and hours all by herself is basically torture, which is why she keeps getting up to tell us about it. But of course every time she does this she wakes herself up a little, resets the clock on when she will eventually fall asleep, and annoys her parents a little more!
Things came to a head last night when she had been out of bed multiple times saying she couldn’t sleep. My husband and I went to bed ourselves around 11:30pm, after having put her back to bed for the fifth time. Then at midnight she came in again and woke me up to tell me she still couldn’t sleep. It was not my finest parenting moment! I shouted, she cried. It was bad. I sent her back to bed, and this morning she still got up at 6am to ask for breakfast. I know we’re in for a terrible day because she’s not had enough sleep, and everybody is cross and grumpy with everybody else.
I don’t know how to fix this! It’s like having a toddler again. I have asked her if she’s worried about anything but she says she’s not. She doesn’t have screens before bed. I read to her and then she reads to herself for about 30 minutes before lights out. Her room is dark and quiet and she doesn’t share it with anyone. I have considered giving her a later bedtime than 8:30pm but if she’s still going to wake up at 6am every morning (which she does every day without fail) then she needs an early bedtime to get enough sleep.
Do you have any suggestions?
Ugh, my sympathies! We’ve totally been there. It’s a vicious cycle that typically only needs one “bad” night of sleep trouble, and then spirals into a multi-night issue. Your kid remembers how much it sucked to toss and turn for hours and worries that it might happen again, which is basically a self-fulfilling prophesy and lo, it happens again. And again. And again.
So while your daughter is telling you she’s not worried about anything, that’s probably only half true. She’s maybe not worried about any Big Existential Things, but I guarantee you she is worried about not being able to fall asleep. And then that worry becomes a nagging, pointy little thought that pokes at her while she lies in bed. Am I asleep yet? What about now? Now? No, I’m still awake. Oh no, it’s happening again. MOMMMMMM!!!
So how do you help her break that worry cycle?
Here are a few things that worked for us. (Note that we didn’t necessarily do ALL of these things at once…we’ve just had my three kids ALL go through similar rough sleeping patches at different ages and stages, so I’m just going back and cataloging anything and everything that seemed to help.)
1. Make sure she’s actually tired at bedtime
Despite the regular 6 a.m. waking, it’s important that she is, in fact, actually tired at bedtime. (Remember the ol’ “drowsy but awake” advice from the foggy baby days? Still works!) I’m sure the stretch of reduced sleep is taking a toll on her mood in general, but pay attention to her face and body language at night. Is she yawning at all or rubbing her eyes? Or does she still seem relatively wide awake and ready to play and talk when you’re reading bedtime stories?
If she’s NOT showing any physical signs of sleepiness, sending her to bed — even if you KNOW she’s going to wake up super early and NEEDS those extra hours sleep — is, unfortunately, setting her up for repeated failure right now. She’s not getting those hours right now anyway, so let her fill them with something other than tossing and turning alone in extrovert torture and popping up to give you the I’m Not Asleep Yet report 10 times a night.
2. Relax the rules around bedtime and/or lights out
I know this sounds nuts for a super-early riser, but for now, I would really focus on the evening hours and how to make them more pleasant for her. She’s probably full-on DREADING bedtime at this point. That needs to change.
So you can try one of two things: You can move bedtime back, or you can keep it the same but give her more than 30 minutes until “lights out.” We don’t really bother with “lights out” rules anymore — once they’re in their rooms it’s all up to them. They can read, draw, listen to music, whatever. If they want to sleep with a light on all night, that’s up to them as well. (And I know keeping the light on longer sounds counter-intuitive to a good night’s sleep as well, but I don’t know! Kids are weird sometimes! All three of mine insist on a light level in their room at night that I’m just happy is somewhat below “football stadium floodlights!”) We do ask that they stay in their rooms, stay relatively quiet, and don’t disrupt or bother their brothers.
Lights on OR off, your daughter might not enjoy being alone in her room for that long of a stretch of time, so she might do better with a few nights of a pushed-back or flexible bedtime where she can spend that time with you (playing a game, working on a puzzle, watching a special show, etc.). Remember that she isn’t having sleep issues and pestering you all night on purpose. This is all deeply unpleasant and stressful for her, so letting her stay up until she’s really ready to fall asleep isn’t “giving in” or “rewarding bad behavior.” It might just be what she needs to get over this rough patch, and bedtime can move back up later.
3. Throw some products at the problem
Melatonin gummies (ask your child’s doctor first), a weighted blanket, and a voice-activated speaker (like an Alexa or Google Home) connected to a Spotify Kids account. We have all three, use all three, love all three.
4. React to waking consistently
I repeat, we’ve been here, and I know firsthand how the constant “I can’t sleeeeeep! I’m still awake!” reports slowly erode your patience throughout the night. And you’re right, it IS like having a toddler again. So you kind of need to put yourself back in sleep-training mode. Obviously you don’t want to act like some cold, unfeeling monster to your child’s distress, but at the same time, you’re ALSO right that jumping out of bed to come find you is only making things worse for everybody here, including her. Sleep can only happen if she stays in bed.
So first, don’t reward the early and initial wakings with cuddles and too much attention. You can absolutely offer sympathy and reassurance, but in like, the tone of your voice using just sentence or two before sending her immediately back to bed. State and repeat the obvious: “Sleep can only happen in your bed. You need to stay in bed for sleep to happen.”
By having a script and setting the expectation that coming to find you doesn’t result in a Big Parental Outpouring of Affection and Interaction, it should give her a little less natural incentive to come find you. And it will be easier for you to keep an even keel vs. offering her Big Parental Outpourings early in the evening before your patience runs out after waking (and Outpouring) number six or seven.
5. Incentivize staying in bed
You can also try going back to reward and sticker charts or some other actual tangible incentive to keep her in bed. Explain that the getting up to come talk to you is probably a BIG part of her sleeping problem. (That is one big advantage to sleep issues at 10 vs. sleep issues at 1 or 2 — you can TALK to them with WORDS. You can EXPLAIN how things WORK. Isn’t that GLORIOUS.) It’s resetting her brain’s sleep clock, so to speak. So if she wants to get to sleep — and I am 100% confident that she really does — she has to stop this.
So make her a deal: Here’s what you (Mom) can do to help her sleep. This could be the extra time and attention before bed, melatonin, weighted blanket, permission to keep her light on for reading longer or listen to music, etc. Or it could be changing NOTHING and just explaining that her existing bedtime and bedtime story/routine are there for a reason, and that’s all you can really do.
In exchange, she promises to stay in bed and give herself a real chance to fall asleep on her own, even if it’s boring. If she does that every night for X number of nights, she can earn a reward.
(Consider this yet another product to throw at the problem, but let’s be honest: Aren’t we all a little more driven to break bad habits and change our behavior if we know there’s an incentive/reward in it for us? 10-year-olds know what’s up.)
6. Talk to her doctor and check for any potential sleep disrupters
I’m assuming (hoping) your daughter isn’t regularly chugging caffeinated drinks, but even the occasional soda as a treat can really mess with a child’s sleep and wiring. Excess sugar and food dyes can also be worth checking for/eliminating. And if she happens to be on ADHD medication, insomnia (and then ongoing sleep anxiety) is a super common side effect. We had to try a couple before we found the right one that didn’t interfere with our son’s sleep.
And by all means, talk to her doctor about this! Ask about the melatonin, see if there’s anything else they suggest or want to check for.
7. Declare early riser independence
There’s no reason she should be waking you up at 6 a.m. to ask for breakfast. A 10-year-old can make her own breakfast! It’s the easiest meal of the day! Cereal, milk, some fruit or a yogurt cup — all things she is more than capable of getting out for herself. A 10-year-old can use the toaster and the microwave for toast, waffles, or oatmeal. (My now 11-year-old learned how to scramble his own eggs at 8, though only after a LOT of supervised practice.) She can absolutely handle her own breakfast.
I’m sure waking you up in the morning has a lot more to do with her wanting company and interaction in the morning, but still. 6 a.m. is EARLY, child. She can give you until 7 or even 8, I’m sure of it. (Feel free to throw another reward chart at this one too, once the bedtime mess is settled.)
More on sleep from Alpha Mom:
1. My Four Year Old Won’t Go To Bed!
2. Insomnia & Special Needs Kids
3. How to Build a Behavior Chart for Your Toddler
Photo source: Depositphotos/ fizkes