You could be forgiven for thinking that once the toddler years are over you’re home and dry with disrupted nights sleep!! But the brutal truth is that there are lots of reasons why your 4, 5, 6, or 7-year old could be having trouble settling to sleep or staying asleep.
This is not exhaustive, but here’s a roundup of the most common culprits:
1) School anxieties
School rocks your child’s world! Suddenly their world just got a whole lot bigger, more exciting, more stimulating, challenging, and scary. School can be the making of most children, but it’s pretty obvious that your child is going to be processing some pretty big feelings. Their teacher has a huge part to play in this, as do friends.
How to help your child:
- Be organised the night before. Getting ready for school and out the door is a feat of military proportions! Rushing and panic in the morning is a recipe for leaving both of you with a bad taste in your mouth all day. Get the uniform, school bag and lunch sorted in advance. Involve your child in planning the order they will do things in the morning. This way there is no mad rush. It might seem unrelated to sleep but kids can fret about this stuff just as much as we can before a big day at work.
- Plan special time with your child. It’s harder to factor and schedule this in once school starts, but it’s even more important now than when they were little.
- Ask them about school in a fun way ‘what was the funniest thing that happened today’, or ‘tell me about a time today when you held a pencil’….rather than ‘how was your day’. You may have already figured out that they don’t tell you anything if you ask this!
- Organise play dates to foster your child’s growing relationships. This may involve weeding out the friendships you sense are actually not helpful!
- Consider buying a ‘worry-eater’, a little toy with a zip-up mouth that your child can ‘feed’ their worries to. They’re available on Amazon.
2) Sibling rivalry
Around this time it’s common for another sibling to arrive which again can rock the world of an older child. In a funny way it’s easier to adjust when they’re little, but older school age children can sometimes take this hard, especially if they are off to school knowing that mummy is at home all day with their sibling. It’s even more important to try to make them feel special
How to help your child:
- Once again, one to one time with your children individually is incredibly helpful to help them open up
- Give them big brother/sister privileges that help them feel useful and special. Consider a later bedtime for instance, to reinforce the message that with age comes responsibility but also privilege.
- Give them a role- such as cheering up their sibling when they’re upset, or reading a story
Many parents go a bit underground with this one, fearing it reflects badly on them or their child if their older child is still in nappies or pull-ups, or wets the bed. This is an extremely common problem though and you’re not alone. The truth is that being dry at night is a developmental milestone just like all the others you’ve got through. You can’t rush it. If you’ve tried the usual tricks and they don’t work, my suggestion is to do whatever minimises the impact of sleep for all of you, and trust that your child will grow out of it. Most nocturnal enuresis nurse won’t take referrals for children under 7-8yrs, and it’s not at all uncommon for 10-12 year olds to still wet the bed. The regulation of urine production at night is governed by the hormone vasopressin, and children make very small amounts of it, gradually improving as they mature. If you’ve ever worked a night shift you’ll probably have noticed that you hardly need to pee at all over night, but then just when you’re trying to sleep in the day you’re up to the toilet every few hours, disrupting your sleep, even though you’re not drinking. It’s because your hormone production gets quite set in its ways! I promise this problem too will pass.
How to help your child:
- Stay calm. Chances are they’re only going to get more worked up if you punish or make them feel like a nuisance. So I reiterate – do whatever it takes to help everyone get a good nights sleep. Whether that means pull ups for a while, or bed mat protectors, or whatever!
- Try limiting fluids after about 5-6pm.
- Avoid caffeine – including coca cola, tea, coffee, chocolate etc
- Encourage your child to try to pee before bed
- Consider lifting them or taking them to the toilet when you go to bed
4) Developmental and cognitive changes
Now, this might sound like a catch-all, but it’s true! This is a time of exceptional cognitive growth and their brain is processing at a speed you and I can’t keep up with! They are learning a phenomenal amount of new skills, dexterity, ability, facts and knowledge which sometimes manifests in anxieties about going to bed, or waking up with nightmares.
How to help your child:
- Keep an open dialogue with your child – invite them to ask you anything, or tell you anything. Always appear un-shockable! Never tell them off again for something they’ve been punished for at school already – you want home to be a safe place
- Try offering them something of yours to ‘keep safe’ for you overnight under their pillow. This helps them to feel connected to you.
- Try mediation CDs at bedtime. I love Christiane Kerr – again, available on good old Amazon!
5) Health and dietary problems
Lots of children wake in the night due to illness or discomfort – constipation, allergy, asthma, eczema – you name it!
Take a good long look at your child’s overall health. Think about keeping a diary of exercise, diet, health symptoms, even poo, to see if there is a correlation with how your night goes.
Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I’m a big believer in that you can’t just take sleep asa symptom in isolation – its a holistic issue that needs a big look at the overall picture to make sense of it all.
There are a billion other things that can play havoc with sleep – drop me a comment if you want me to cover anything specific!
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, birth trauma recovery practitioner and holistic sleep and behaviour coach, and is also a respected International speaker and the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program. You can pLyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.