Before the pandemic, my six-year-old daughter was a great sleeper. She often fell asleep before I even managed to kiss her goodnight and almost always slept through the night. But when the pandemic started, she became terrified to sleep by herself and woke up at least 2-3 times a night. Exhausted and at my wits’ end, all I could do was blame the pandemic for my child’s sleep challenges.
I know I am not the only parent with this problem. The pandemic upended daily life for billions of children worldwide and threw their regular routines out the door overnight, just like ours. Kids haven’t had regular school schedules or been able to participate in their extracurricular activities. They have had to adjust to most of their activities being on the computer. And after a year, things have yet to go back to normal for most kids.
Kids are dealing with decreased levels of physical activity and sunlight. And television overload and time on devices are all doing a number on some kids’ sleep patterns. Furthermore, disrupted sleep patterns for kids equal parents with messed-up sleep patterns. And I can tell you from experience that tired parents and cranky kids still dealing with the everyday stressors of pandemic life are not a good mix at all.
So what is a tired, tapped-out parent like me to do? Reach out to some sleep specialists and get professional advice before I completely lost my mind.
Psychotherapist and Holistic Sleep Coach Sheena-Marie Hill shared that pandemic-related sleep challenges are symptoms of stress and anxiety. She states that our bodies are designed to utilize stress reactions in short bursts with opportunities to recharge entirely in between. But, unfortunately, our bodies have been functioning in emergency mode for way too long, leaving our nervous systems “overloaded and struggling to achieve regulation and relaxation.”
According to Hill, kids are experiencing an extra need to offload and integrate feelings and fears, but they aren’t getting as many opportunities to do so. This can result in parents experiencing the infamous bedtime stalling, unusual clinginess, and more than normal tantrums or crying. It can also result in kids getting in and out of bed (parents’ all-time fave), expressing new fears and worries, and taking longer to go to sleep at night. Not to mention the middle of the night waking, or even waking up crying, and good ‘ol bad dreams. And any of these can happen to kids of all ages.
About two months into the pandemic, my daughter began experiencing some of these sleep challenges. It started with her not being able to go to sleep for hours. Then she started talking about all the “scary things” outside of the house, and she wanted me or my husband to lie with her until she fell asleep. Once we got her to sleep, she would wake about every two hours as if she were a two-month-old infant. It was heartbreaking, frustrating, and exhausting to experience this cycle night after night. And both my husband and I were at our wits’ end.
Hill understands that bedtime is when parents tend to be the most tapped out. But she encourages parents not to get caught up in behavior, and instead try to understand the root causes of sleep challenges. She suggests parents find time during the day for emotional connection so kids can get lots of support when parents are maybe more capable of providing it.
Child and family psychologist Dr. Courtney Bolton agrees that older children’s sleep challenges are typically behavioral. She suggested a few areas parents can focus on to help with sleep challenges. To start with, Dr. Bolton shared that children ages 6-12 should be getting around 9-12 hours of sleep per night, and teenagers should be sleeping about 8-10 hours per night. Moreover, she offered advice on a few other areas that can help influence bedtime and the ability to fall or stay asleep.
Let kids be active outside during the day.
Dr. Bolton explains that being outside and active during the day is critical to our circadian rhythm (which runs on a 25-hour diurnal clock – not 24). She states it helps kids “stay within their clocks,” relieves stress, and promotes better sleep. Although my kids complain, we send them outside for one hour after virtual school ends. Unfortunately, outside time is not always an option for all parents, but it gives kids exposure to sunlight, helps them burn off some energy, and their eyes get a break from their devices.
Create a calming bedtime routine.
According to Dr. Bolton, making bedtime the same every night (even on the weekends) will help your child’s body condition to their bedtime routine and the time that it happens. We have four kids ranging in age from 4 to 15 in our house, so we decided to make everyone’s bedtime the same giving them all an average of 10 hours of sleep per night. Within just a week of implementing this, I noticed my daughter was able to fall asleep much faster with a lot fewer worries. And now she is back to peacefully falling asleep within 15-20 minutes of putting her to bed.
Give kids time to unwind away from screens and homework.
Ensuring that your children have time to unwind away from screens and the worries of homework or school is an important factor that Dr. Bolton believes parents should enforce. My husband came up with an idea to cut off all devices one hour before bedtime. I wasn’t too sure about it, but I quickly realized that it gave our kids time to unwind and transition to a more restful state. And we got the bonus of our kids enjoying hanging out with each other for that time with little to no fights. It’s a joy to hear them giggling in their rooms together, and it makes bedtime so much easier — for not just my daughter, but all of them.
Create a comfortable environment.
Room temperature, the blankets’ weight, and pajamas all play a part in comfort and temperature regulation. Dr. Bolton encourages parents to make sure there are no distracting noises that may wake your kids and to keep devices out of bedrooms if possible. White noise can be a great tool for this, and my daughter is now a big fan of her white noise machine. Dr. Bolton also suggests keeping work areas and sleep areas separated (e.g. not allowing kids to attend virtual school from bed).
Have your child return to sleep in their bed.
Dr. Bolton shares that on average, we wake up six times per night but immediately return to sleep. She explains that for kids experiencing difficulty staying asleep, it’s important that they return to sleep quickly. Dr. Bolton suggests when your child wakes at night, make sure they return to sleep in their beds right away. Try to minimize interaction, but if you must, try to sit in the room or outside the door.
Besides, returning to your bed without a child sleeping horizontally with their feet in your back will save you a lot of aches and pains and help you get better sleep too. And with kids’ sleep habits regressing thanks to the pandemic, we need all the shut-eye we can get.