A few weeks ago, I traveled abroad for 2 nights to work with a family whose son was taking hours to fall asleep and then waking during the night and sometimes taking hours to fall back to sleep. His parents were exhausted and frustrated as he is 6 years old and a confident, happy boy, but he appeared to be very anxious when it came to bedtime and sleeping.
We, The Sleep Fairy Team, don’t usually spend so long with families, but in this case, I needed to really get to know the family so that I could get to the bottom of why this boy was behaving in this way at bedtime and through the night.
On arriving at the family home, I met a sociable family who travel quite a lot, and a chatty little boy who has spent a lot of time in the company of adults. As a result, he communicates brilliantly, and it is easy to forget that he is only 6. He didn’t instantly open up and warm to me (I feel that it is good to be cautious of strangers) but once he did, we talked about all sorts of interesting things and explained who I was and why I was there.
Following discussions with his parents, we thought that he was fearful about going to bed and had deep routed anxiety around sleep. Historically he had never been a “good sleeper” and over the last 2 months his sleep had become even worse with him regularly sneaking into his parents’ or nanny’s beds. When his parents had tried to change his sleeping habits, he had taken his cushion and a towel and slept on the hallway floor outside his parents’ bedroom or beside their bed.
Having 48 hours with them allowed the whole family to relax and behave normally so that I could see how they interacted with each other and how this played a part in his night time behaviour. Unlike many families we visit, they already had some clear boundaries in place, and a Time Out system that they used when he was being difficult or misbehaving, so they were already in a relatively good place with behaviour, which is often a major cause of difficult bedtimes and nights. However, like most families, they would often give him too many warnings or chances to follow instructions before using Time Out.
Having spent two nights with the family, I hadn’t observed any signs of fear or anxiety related to sleep or bedtime. I observed lots of procrastination and fighting sleep, and on the second night some rage and bad temper about going to bed.
To have very clear boundaries and not give second chances or warnings when giving instructions and using Time Out, so that he feels secure in his position within the family, knowing that the grown-ups who are in charge will look after him and keep him safe.
To bring bedtime earlier so that he isn’t going to bed over-tired, as this can make it more difficult to go to sleep.
For an adult to sit with him when he falls asleep and when he wakes during the night and to move further away every few days until he is falling asleep alone.
The first night was long. He took an hour and a half to fall asleep and then woke a few times in the night. Each time, we sat with him until he was asleep again.
The second night was much better. He fell asleep in less than an hour and remained in his bed for the following 10 hours. He woke briefly and went to his nanny who took him back to bed and he went back to sleep quickly.
This confirmed to me that there wasn’t any anxiety or fear related to bedtime, so following the plan consistently was what was needed.
The following two weeks were a mixture of good and not so good nights, but things did gradually improve. That was until mum and dad had to go away for a week, at which point they got worse again, but with their brilliant nanny under strict instructions to be firm and consistent, they improved to the point that they had two perfect nights. Once mum came home, they had a couple more bad nights, with several wakes in the night but since then he has been sleeping through and falling asleep quickly on his own.
In this case, as in most cases, this lovely boy needed clear consistent boundaries during the day and through the night, especially as his parents travel regularly with and without him, both of which can be unsettling for young children (even if they appear mature). The boundaries help children to feel secure during times of change and upheaval.
The earlier bedtime means that he isn’t getting overtired. When we get overtired, we use adrenaline and cortisol to keep going, but these make it harder to fall asleep.
By knowing that someone would stay with him until he was asleep, he was able to relax at bedtime and feel secure about falling asleep alone when the time came.
Moving forward, he may still have nights where he finds it more difficult to fall asleep, and he may wake in the night, but this is likely to happen around times of change and travel. If this is accepted and the boundaries remain consistent, the disturbances should be brief and settle down within a couple of nights.