​My 6 year-old can’t get to sleep!

​My 6 year-old can’t get to sleep!

For parents and carers of primary aged children with busy minds, who find it difficult to wind down and get to sleep.

When I was pregnant for the first time (with twins!), I remember someone telling me that the challenge of parenting evolved over time. I’ve found that’s certainly true when it comes to children’s sleep.

My twins are now 6 years old and my 3 year-old is firmly settled at pre-school. As my children are getting older, so my sleep-related chats with friends who are parents themselves have moved on from “my baby won’t nap”, “my toddler won’t stay in bed” or “my pre-schooler still wants her dummy”. The most frequent sleep-related debate we have these days is “why can’t my 6 year-old get to sleep?!” Followed by a debate on how many hours of sleep a 6 – 10 year-old needs these days (guidance is roughly 10 to 11 hours).

So, what to do? Well funnily enough, if I run through my sleep solutions for Primary Aged Children they are not a million miles away from the baby, toddler or pre-schooler solutions. Those have always been:

1) Predictable bed-time and bed-time routine.
2) Predictable wake-up time.
3) Sufficient day-time physical activity and daylight.
4) Sufficient food and water during the day.
5) Limiting stimulating food and drinks before bed-time (e.g. sugar, chocolate, squash).
6) Wind-down time before bed.
7) Limiting screen-time before bed.
8) Sufficient cuddle and connection with a parent or carer before bedtime.
9) Having a transitional object to cuddle e.g., a teddy.

Sound familiar? So if the solutions haven’t changed, why has the result changed? It’s that familiar feeling for any parent, that just when we thought we were the experts on our child they went and changed! So what is it that has changed for our children?

Their growing independence
Our 6 year-olds’ growing independence from us means that we don’t always know what they’re doing and they very often don’t want us to! At 6, our children love nothing better than a bit of privacy with secret diaries, invisible ink and reading with torches. Unless we have a camera into their rooms or are checking on them every five minutes, we don’t always know what they are up to and how they are managing to do anything but wind-down!

Reading independently is part of our children’s growing independence, but not all books help our children to wind down: whilst our 6 year-old may drop off reading a well-thumbed picture book, they may be over-stimulated by their latest detective novel. While the appeal for many busy parents of having their child quietly reading to themselves in their room is clear, having to deal with an over-tired child the next morning is less appealing!

Their growing awareness of the world
Our 6 year-olds have a growing awareness of what’s going on in the world. Even if we avoid having the news on in their presence, our children pick up on world events or experience things first-hand that are happening in the world around them that can play on their minds. Few children would have managed to escape references to the November 2015 terrorist incident in Paris, or the ongoing situation in Syria, in over-heard conversations or even school assemblies. These situations are hard for adults to process, let alone children. Add to this the increasingly complicated friendships of the 6 year-old world, the increased chance by 6 of having experienced family turmoil or bereavement and you increasingly have a world that the 6 year-old can no longer be fully protected from. Nor would we want to – we need our 6 year-olds to begin to understand the dangers of the world and yet we want them to process these effectively and “BY BEDTIME!”

And it’s not just our children that are changing – what’s also changing is the way we relate to them, our expectations of them and our own lives.

Our growing expectations
“Come on, you’re 6!” By the time our children are in school, many of our lives are so busy and complicated by work pressures, household pressures or by caring responsibilities for younger siblings or older relatives, that our young children have to manage all this new awareness and experience of the world with far less of our precious support. Whilst we may have been right there while they smiled for the first time, got their first tooth, took their first step or had their first day at school, by the time they’re dealing with their first playground brawl, first break-up with their best friend or first school assembly on terrorism(!), it’s harder for us to be there for them in the same way.

Teachers are generally too busy to help our 6 year-olds process their own emotional turmoil; after-school clubs are not set up to do this and us parents, well we’re at work! And even if we’re lucky enough to be around, we often have our children on such a tight schedule of after-school activities and homework, that come bedtime our child might have their first opportunity to sit and think and let all those thoughts, feelings, fears and down-right terrors pop up.

So, time for some solutions! Below are my top age-appropriate solutions for the 6 to 10 year-olds in our lives. But before you look at them ask yourself this question: What does my child get as a result of their bedtime behaviour? Is it:

More parental attention: our children crave our negative as well as our positive attention – they welcome any attention – so is there a different time of day you could shift this attention and connection time to, so that they get the attention they need before bedtime?

A need for peace and quiet in their own space: alternatively, your busy child who has gone straight from school to after-school clubs to home to bed, with no time to spend by themselves or in their own space, may be using bedtime as a chance to enjoy their own space (assuming they don’t share a room). Is there an opportunity for your child to get some space and quiet time before bedtime? If so, when would that be?

When you are clear about the reasons why your child is struggling to fall asleep, here are some solutions:

1) Reflection time: plan in some time every day that your children can reflect with you on their day, their thoughts, their worries, their excitements. This does not have to be at bedtime! Pick a time when you and child can have an undisturbed 10 minutes.
2) Limit independent bed-time reading to 30 minutes and don’t leave your child to it. Pop in every so often to check they are in ‘wind-down’ mode. Knowing you will pop in will also help calm any anxieties about being left in the dark.
3) Teach your child some relaxation exercises that they can do at bedtime after the lights have gone out (or indeed at any time when they are feeling anxious). Take three deep breaths in through your nose, down into your belly and out through your mouth. Help your child to do this by putting a teddy on their tummy and watching it move up or down. Or teach them to blow out imaginary candles (their fingers) – the act of blowing out candles requires us to breathe deeply. Another idea is to put their worries in a box (this can be real or imagined).
4) Play some relaxing music. Classical music such as Brahms and Bach are known to be particularly relaxing, but it has to be something your child will listen to. Often a child of this age will want variety, and they will absolutely want to be in control of what is played. I have known children to fall asleep to birthing music, aromatherapy massage CDs, Disney music, sounds of the sea and jazz, amongst others, so be inventive and help your child decide.
5) Meditation books and CDs can also help your child to wind down. I will be writing a blog soon with my favourite ones but some examples include “the Rabbit who wants to fall asleep” and “Relax Kids, Superheroes”.
6) Ensure your child has a calm bedroom. Whilst you may have got away with a busy bedroom during the first five years, the 6 year-old will work out a million ways to free their toys, trinkets, books etc from their rightful night-time places. Ensure bedrooms are calm and tidy and limit the amount of sleep diversion objects at hand.
7) Reset your child’s body clock. Some primary-aged children will get to sleep much later than you would like, but the consequence of this is that they will sleep in, meaning you have to wake them up in the morning and often later than you’d like. For children who may have got into this habit in the holidays, try waking them up 15 minutes earlier per day to help reset their body clock.

And looking back up to my list of solutions for all children above, your child is NOT too old for a teddy! Give teddy a hug from you and encourage your child to cuddle their teddy and receive that parental hug while they fall asleep. They are, after all, only 6.

As ever, if you need help with a particularly persistent, over-thinking, sleep-fighting 6 year-old you know who to call!

Joanna Hogan

One of my next few posts will focus on more anxious children who may be prone to night-time fears, night terrors and nightmares. Coming soon….

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