Sleep problems tend to be emotional rather than physical in nature.
Dr Sarah Blunden, the head of Paediatric Sleep Research at Central Queensland University, says that fear is the biggest factor when it comes to common sleep issues like bedtime nervousness and nightmares.
“We know that children who are more fearful or anxious generally tend to sleep less well,” says Dr Blunden. “This is one of the main reasons why kids have problems getting to and staying asleep. Kids who are less fearful still wake up in the night (due to natural sleep cycles), but they find it easier to get to and return to sleep.”
About bedtime worries
“Bedtime is the time of day that we are alone with our thoughts,” says Dr Blunden. “Nerves at bedtime often mean we don’t want to be by ourselves. This is especially so for children.”
Young children tend to fear things in their surroundings, like monsters under the bed, nameless noises, and shadows. Older kids are better able to interpret their environment (ie a noise or shadow might be a robber trying to break in), and ruminate on their relationships and life issues.
How to deal with bedtime worries
Help them to be brave - use a reward system (eg stickers or treats).
Try not to get frustrated - kids naturally want to do the right thing, so try and understand why they are fearful and avoid escalating emotions.
Give the child some control - allow them to choose a tool to help them be brave (worry dolls, ‘monster spray’, a radio to cover noises, a torch etc) and contribute to their sleep environment (eg a special blanket, pillows, toys).
Negotiate - get their input on aspects of their routine, like how many stories to read before bed, and when you will return to check on them.
“All of us have had a nightmare,” Dr Blunden says. “We believe they are the brain subconsciously processing information from the day, which is why we dream about real things in our lives. However, they can become a problem for children if they are frequent, persistent, and more and more distressing.”
Dr Blunden says the main contributors of nightmares include an anxious or fearful temperament, being a light sleeper, a genetic predisposition (eg if mum or dad has regular nightmares), physical and mental stress (including trauma) and, possibly, diet and eating before bed (which stimulates the metabolism and brain activity and may prompt nightmares).
How to deal with nightmares
Talk it out - explain to your child that dreaming is a natural process, that they are safe, and that the dream will not come true. This is particularly important for young children who cannot yet understand that dreams aren’t real.
Change the ending - have your child describe, write or draw a more positive ending to their dream (eg the robber is caught by police). This is an example of ‘cognitive restructuring’.
Seek help - speak to a health professional like your GP or a psychologist if nightmares continue and are overwhelming for your child. The great news is that nightmares are easily treated.
For more information about dealing with common childhood sleep issues, see The Boss of My Sleep Book by Dr Sarah Blunden and Dr Kirrilly Thompson, available at www.snoozeforkids.com.