Most parents think of fussy babies when the subject of childhood sleep problems is brought up. But trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep—the hallmarks of insomnia—also affect many older children and teens. And oftentimes, anxiety may be to blame.
According to The Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children affected by psychiatric disorders, anxiety is the most common childhood psychiatric condition. The non-profit estimates that 80 percent of children suffering from conditions on the anxiety spectrum have not been diagnosed. Conditions include such diagnoses as autism, depression, and ADHD, and can often appear as comorbid conditions with anxiety.
Without a diagnosis, treatment is hard to come by. For those children whose anxiety has a direct impact on their ability to fall (and stay) asleep, this means more sleepless nights instead of the eight to ten hours per night needed by kids aged six to ten. (Teens need about nine hours of sleep per night.)
“Your child may need to see a licensed therapist,” says Bronx-based Heiddi Zalamar, an LMHC Crisis Clinician working with low-income families and their children. Acknowledging their inability to sleep as truth is a game-changer for many families, she adds. Instead of blaming the child for trying to get attention, which only increases anxiety in general, and sleep anxiety directly, parents show their children that there are safe places to share what’s troubling them.
Janel Copeland, a mother of two elementary-aged children in Atlanta, Georgia, says life has gotten much more predictable since one of her daughters was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which falls on the anxiety spectrum. Copeland swears by a strict bedtime and an extremely tight schedule, adding that both kids benefit.
Currently, they’re in bed at 7:30 p.m. and wake up for school at 6:30 a.m. On weekends, bedtime remains the same but the morning is more relaxed with the kids in bed until about 8 a.m. Experts might recommend up to ten hours of sleep for her children, but she knows her children need 11 hours to function properly.
“They legitimately need that much sleep,” Copeland says. “If they don’t get it, then they can’t sleep at all.”
Copeland, says Zalamar, is right on the money when it comes to keeping to a routine” “Kids with anxiety tend to draw more comfort from knowing what is coming next and when.”
Zalamar also suggests designating your child’s bedroom for sleep only and keeping tabs on how quickly your child falls asleep once in bed. If they are still awake twenty or so minutes later, it’s time to have them get out of bed to read a soothing book or listen to soft music. Repeat the routine until it works.
Sometimes, though, listening to your gut and following your parental instinct is the path to more sleep for your kids (and you).
Leona Bushman, a writer living in the Seattle area, is the mother of an 8-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome. She calls it an “un-routine”.
“As an infant, he kept me up almost 24/7,” Bushman says, adding that her son’s anxiety-induced insomnia is not uncommon for children with Downs. “He used to not sleep at all at night … The problem is that what will work one night might not work the next. I had to learn his mood. So some nights reading would be awesome. Other times, it just made him mad.”
It took years of trial and error, but Bushman finally discovered that, when it comes to helping her son find sleep, there was no single answer.
It might sound contradictory, but Zalamar salutes Bushman for finding the “un-routine” that works for her son when his insomnia strikes, just as she hailed Copeland’s strict schedule for her own kids.
“Sometimes,” Zalamar says, “it’s about trusting your gut. You are their parent. You know your child best.”