Dear Dr. Yael:
I am having a very difficult time putting my children to sleep at night. My four-year-old son constantly barges out of his room after he has been put to bed. This usually goes on for about an hour – no matter how many times I put him back in bed or threaten to punish him. I also have an eight- year-old who is afraid of bedtime because she can’t sleep. As a result, she sometimes stays awake until midnight just lying in bed. Other times she will wake up during the night and stay up for hours. I have shared pleasant thoughts with her, trying to help her relax – but it doesn’t seem to help.
My marriage has become extremely tense because I am spending all my time with my children instead of with my husband. How can I get my children into bed so I can spend more time working on my marriage?
Your sleep issue, while obviously very frustrating, is not unique. Many children have a difficult time going to sleep. When children go to sleep they view it as a separation from their parents, which can make them feel extremely uncomfortable. – which causes them stress. Some children even feel they are missing something fun and exciting if they go to sleep. And then there are the children who are afraid to go sleep because they think they might not wake up.
It’s possible that you are putting your son to sleep too early. If he goes to sleep an hour later and wakes up in the morning on his own, the amount of sleep he’s getting may be sufficient for him. If putting him to bed an hour later is too problematic for you, then give him the privilege of staying up for an extra hour, as long as he plays quietly in his room. When the hour is up you can go into his room to tuck him in. It is also very important to have a sleep routine. How do you put your son to bed? Do you read him stories, speak to him in a loving way, listen to his stories about his day, or engage him in a pleasant conversation? The time before a child goes to sleep is precious and should be used wisely. Children will often tell you anything and everything in order to steal a few minutes. Since children generally have such a strong desire to stay up “for just a few more minutes,” this is the best time to foster and enhance your relationship with them.
A bedtime routine whereby your son bathes, brushes his teeth, says Shema, and spends some time with you or your spouse (either in storytelling or pleasant talk) before he goes to sleep can help him know what to expect. This kind of consistency often helps make bedtime easier. This can also help your son separate from you without feeling anxious. Even though it is very tempting to threaten your son with punishment when he continuously comes out of bed, try to avoid this. It may be helpful for you to record a tape for him to hear, expressing your love for him and extolling his virtues. Your son can play the tape in his room after you leave, so that his separation from you is easier to handle. I would also recommend storytelling tapes. Children will often fall asleep much more easily when they are listening to a story before they go to bed.
As for your daughter, she appears to have a more serious problem. First, make sure that you are not allowing her to have any caffeine. Some individuals are more sensitive to caffeine and any amount of it can cause sleeping difficulties. If caffeine is not an issue, you should investigate whether your daughter is afraid of something related to bedtime, i.e. going to sleep. If something is troubling her, perhaps talking about it in a reassuring way will help her sleep better.
Even though your daughter is already eight years old, she also needs a bedtime routine – whereby you give her love and attention. Children are never too old to need special time with you. Even teenagers, who have a loving and communicative relationship with their parents, love to talk to Mom and Dad before they go to bed.
A child’s worst fears frequently emerge right before they go to sleep, possibly causing them immense difficulty in falling asleep. If you talk to your daughter before she goes to sleep about what is bothering her, you might uncover the root of her problem. If this doesn’t work I suggest that you seek professional help, since she may be phobic about sleeping and may have something deeper bothering her that must be addressed.