With the start of school and very anxious 1st grader with a history of night time panic attacks and interrupted sleep, we knew we had to take a hard look at our bedtime routines before too much sleep was lost by anyone (including moms!)
Our daughter Elliott has had troubles sleeping since she was around 3. Looking back, I can hypothesize things started to get dicey when she got her own room. As a baby, she either shared a room with us or her younger brother. When she was 3, we moved to a new house and gave her her own room and toddler bed-and that is when the night terrors began. She would wake up and scream or cry. She would run around the house yelling “Mama!” when we were both right there. She was completely asleep, but it appeared she was awake. Her eyes were open and she was communicating, but in reality, she was still sleeping. Those nights she would have no recollection of the bad dreams or panicked episodes. We finally got them under control by gently waking her 45 minutes after she fell asleep. It disrupted the REM cycle and allowed her (and us!) to sleep throughout the night.
Fast forward to when she was 4, and we moved again. Our routine looked similar to the one I had while growing up: Dinner, TV, Baths, Books, Bed. However, the “Bed” portion of the routine was never easy with Elliott. She couldn’t fall asleep without one of us laying next to her, and then as soon as we would try to escape, she would wake up and we would have to start it all over again. She was fearful of faces and all pictures, dolls, or anything with a face had to be removed from her room. Lights were kept on, oils diffused, sound soothers turned on, melatonin given and anything else we could think of. Nothing made sleep easy and kept her asleep (and out of our bed) all night.
With the urging of her therapist, we purchased the workbook What to Do When You Dread Your Bed. The book suggests making the hour before bed an entirely “Screen-Free” time. It suggests calm family time activities such as coloring, calm board games, or reading. We were committed. We didn’t want to struggle any longer and we all needed our sleep! The first few days were easy. We were in the honeymoon phase and the kids were enjoying the extra family time together. Cue day 3. It was rainy and my first day back to school after the summer off. During our screen-free family time, neither one of us had our phones, of course, so we couldn’t see the warnings from friends and family about the flooding in our neighborhood. It wasn’t until we heard a weird noise from the basement and went to investigate. We found 8 inches of rain and sewer water flowing all throughout our finished basement. Needless to say, our nighttime routines were thrown out the window (or to the curb with the rest of our belongings from our basement!)
Fast forward one more month, and Ellie starts asking for a pet goldfish. I told her if she could sleep in her bed for TEN nights in a row, we would go to the pet store and pick out a goldfish. She had a goal and was determined. At the same time, we started a new vitamin to help with anxiety. The combination was magical. The first two nights were rough, but once she decided to go for it, there was no turning back. On night seven, she had a stomach ache and ended up sleeping on our floor, but she took it like a champ and started back over the next night. As of last night, we have successfully had 11 nights in a row of her sleeping in her bed. One of us still lays with her until she falls asleep, but it’s much quicker and if she wakes when we go to leave, there is not a big fight or panic attack.
She did it herself, with a bit of support from her moms, and I couldn’t be happier.
So in the end, no book or therapist has the all the right answers. You have to do what is right for your family. Maybe one of our little tricks can help you get some extra sleep!