They may no longer fear monsters under the bed, but older kids have nighttime worries, too. Here’s how you can help them combat nighttime anxiety.
My daughter has always been my best sleeper. The kind of baby I could actually put to bed sleepy and she’d happily drift off, unlike my other two who approached bedtime like an enemy to be vanquished.
She slept through the night at six weeks, napped like a champ and asked for her own bed in her own room at two years old and never looked back at the family bed again.
Minus the occasional illness or bad thunderstorm, her easy-going sleeping habits have held fast, so I was caught off-guard by a recent reluctance to go bed and stay there. After weeks of struggling to figure out why— Was she sick? Uncomfortable? Having growing pains? Did she watch or read something upsetting?
She finally confessed that she couldn’t sleep because she was worried. What was she worried about? Well, in her words, “everything.”
Generalized anxiety is tough, hard to understand and harder to explain, as if your brain senses danger and ramps you up into fight or flight mode, but won’t tell you why. And it’s especially difficult at night, when there’s nothing to distract your anxious mind from worrying about anything and everything. I’ve been through it myself, and also with my oldest son, and now with my nine-year-old.
The good news is, it’s not impossible to cope with. It’s not easy, but sleep can eventually come. Of course, if you have a child with anxiety severe enough to consistently disrupt sleep and their usual daily activities, please talk to your pediatrician about your options. In addition to seeking appropriate help, here are some tactics to help combat nighttime anxiety.
In addition to keeping a reading light and books next to her bed, my daughter has added a journal. She writes down positive thoughts, happy things that have happened recently, and exciting upcoming events that she’s looking forward to. This way she goes to bed with positive thoughts occupying her mind instead of negative. My oldest son calls this “override.”
2. Worry Doll.
These are tiny handmade dolls that originate from Guatemala, and the idea is that if worrying is keeping a child awake these dolls take over their worries, are placed under a pillow and in the morning, all worries will be gone. You can buy or make them, or use a small doll or toy you already have on hand to help visualize this “sending away” of worries.
3. Essential Oils.
Some of the essential oils recommended for encouraging sleep and relaxation are lavender, sweet orange, cedarwood, sage, and camomile. Use the oils in a diffuser at bedtime, or, our favorite, in the form of a relaxing bath before bed.
Wear out the body and wear out the mind, so they say. However, I’ve found vigorous exercise near bedtime can have the opposite effect. We have had success with a mellow after-dinner walk and often times my daughter will also talk about anything that’s bothering her, making it less likely that she’ll take her worries to bed and think about them instead of sleeping.
5. Weighted Blanket.
Studies have shown that a weighted blanket can simulate something called deep pressure touch stimulation that, like a hug or swaddling, can help relax the nervous system and reduce anxiety by boosting serotonin production. Weighted blankets are available to purchase or you can make your own no-sew weighted blanket.
6. Dream Jar.
This one was inspired by a unit study on The BFG that had an assignment to create a dream jar, just like Sophie and the BFG do in the book. For my daughter’s jar, we decorated a mason jar with heart stickers and sprinkled some glitter inside.
Then we added small items that make her feel safe and loved and happy: A mini cat toy that looks like her cat, a heart charm, a glow-in-the-dark star. Any small objects can work, or write happy things on little slips of paper, the jar should serve as a visual reminder of positive thoughts to focus on as they settle down to sleep.
7. Later Bedtime.
I admit, I’ve always been pretty strict about early bedtimes for my kids — probably because I rely on my own early bedtime routine to fall asleep! But I have relaxed the rules a little lately, letting them read or even watch a little TV after getting settled in bed, until they feel ready to fall asleep. It still has to be at a reasonable hour, but less time lying in bed wide awake means less time to worry.
8. Be Sensitive.
It can be difficult to understand why a child would have anything stressful enough to keep them up at night, but a worry that may seem small to an adult feels pretty huge to a child. An important part of helping a child overcome nighttime anxiety is to believe and support them. Worse than lying awake in the dark worrying about everything is feeling as if you’re all alone.
Simple empathy and support can go a long way.