Struggling to sleep: how to help bad sleepers nod off.

Struggling to sleep: how to help bad sleepers nod off. Photo: Getty Images

As school is back in full swing around the country, parents are starting to enforce bedtimes again. But just because your child's designated 'sleep time' arrives, doesn't mean she will instantly fall asleep.

Janet knows this all too well.

Every night she struggles to get her six-year-old daughter, Zoe, to bed. Although Zoe turns her lights out at 8.30pm, she always says she can't sleep.

"I let her read and sometimes she draws on a clipboard while she lies in bed," Janet says. But nothing helps. Zoe is often still wide-awake past 10pm.

"I don't know what else to do," Janet says.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Lara Winten says it's "quite normal" for children to have short periods of sleep difficulties.

She says children's sleep can be affected by a range of environmental factors - like temperature and light - as well as biological factors, like growth spurts.

However, if your child is having longer-term sleep issues, she recommends talking to them and "gently prompting them to discuss any worries they may have". (If you believe your child's sleep issues relate to ongoing problems, Dr Winten suggests setting aside "worry time" once a week to discuss her concerns.)

But if your child seems otherwise fine and simply can't sleep, there are things you can do to help.

Firstly, says Sleep Consultant Dr David Cunnington, ensure you're not transferring your own sleeping beliefs and anxieties onto your child.

"You need to find the balance between teaching kids to be respectful of sleep, but not too concerned about it."

As evening approaches, Dr Winten recommends avoiding electronic devices, as the bright lights emitted from them can interfere with sleep.

Then, she suggests following a consistent bedtime routine. Not only does this make children of all ages feel secure, she says it's also an important "behavioural cue" for their brains to start preparing for sleep.

A good example of a pre-bed routine is having a set time each night for a bath, putting on pyjamas, reading and lights out. 

"In contrast, a chaotic and unpredictable routine can leave kids suddenly in bed with the lights out and an expectation of trying to get to sleep," says Dr Cunnington.

Once your child is in bed, Dr Cunnington says the aim is to "train kids that they don't need to control sleep".

Dr Cunnington says if you tell your child she needs to do breathing exercises or other such things in order to fall asleep, you're ingraining in her a belief that she can only sleep if she tries to actively control it. (He calls this a "perfect" recipe for insomnia later in life.)

However, if your child is getting frustrated by not being able to sleep, there are ways to soothe her.

Dr Winten suggests making a "sleep-aid box". This is a box of items and exercises children can do in bed.

"Some of my younger patients have called theirs 'sleepy boxes' and have decorated them and made them special."

Dr Winten says you can fill the box with a variety of calming objects to help your child feel relaxed. This might include a picture book or photo album to look at, or some soft toys for your child to play with, depending on her age.

You may also want to teach your child some ways to help her stay relaxed in bed. This can include focusing on her breathing, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation (where you tell yourself it's time to relax your neck, then your shoulders, your arms then your chest and so on).

Lastly, says Dr Cunnington, you may choose to re-evaluate what time you put your child to bed.

He says if your child is consistently not falling asleep at her designated bedtime but is otherwise doing well during the day, you may want to try putting her to bed a little later.

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