Help! My 5 Year Old Struggles to Get to Sleep
I’m introducing a new column here. It’s an advice column. I know! Eek! Now, here’s the thing, I never ever want to come off sounding preachy. I don’t think sanctimonious advice is helpful to anyone. My intentions for this column are to 1. help us start conversations, 2. let you know you’re not alone and 3. hopefully help.
I am so proud of the supportive community we have here. It’s because of how supportive you all are that I felt we could have an advice column on Classic Play—a kind, thoughtful approach to helping each other out. Let’s get to it…
J is 5 and struggling with getting to sleep. Although it’s summer and the evenings are longer, we can still find him jaded but AWAKE after 9. He resorts to our bed and pleads for company.
I work at night and so share both empathy and frustration with him as I am torn between wanting to stroke him to sleep and get stuck into my long list of tasks.
What to do?
Last night, in the middle of the night, I heard the bedroom door open followed by the sound of little footsteps coming round to my side of the bed.
“Hey bud, what’s wrong?”
“I had a nightmare.”
I lifted up the covers and my son snuggled up tight against me. He clung to me for a good long time. It reminded me of when he was a baby. He had trouble nursing so we did the whole co-sleeping thing for several months. It was a sweet and yet completely sleep deprived time. Seriously, I was like a zombie.
My guy is no longer a baby. But while his legs are long, he curled up so tight that he fit right in the curve of my body, just as he did when he was small. It must have been some dream.
I kept my arms wrapped around him as I felt his little heart race. After a while, when I could tell he was settled again, I gave him a squeeze and whispered, “Everything’s alright now, you can go back to bed.”
“Okay.” And he got up, went back to his room and fell asleep.
Last week, while Dave and I were watching tv, we heard a voice at the top of the steps. “Mommy, Daddy, I can’t sleep.” It was 9:30 and our 10-year-old daughter was having trouble drifting off. Naturally, we yelled some helpful suggestions:
“Just lay down.”
“It doesn’t help. I’m just awake.”
“Get a drink of water.”
“I did that.”
“How about thinking about something good that happened?”
“Try reading a book?”
After some reading, she was finally able to settle down and fall asleep.
I’m telling you these stories because the advice I’m about to offer are things I’ve done and yet, it’s clear they don’t work 100% of the time. My kids still wake up and still crawl into my bed. And sometimes, they still make excuses for why they can’t sleep. Especially, in the summer time.
But there are some things I’ve found that help.
First, it’s okay to tell the kids the “kid part of the day is over.” You can tell them that this is the time that you need to get work done or have a conversation with your husband. And please, don’t feel guilty about it! Unless there is no kid part of the day, and then well, that’s advice for another day. But I highly HIGHLY doubt there’s not a kid part of the day in your house.
Second, I’ve found that when I help my kids develop strategies they can employ themselves, they’re less likely to rely on me down the road.
For instance, when my daughter couldn’t get to sleep, she went through her ‘toolbox of tricks.’ She tried laying in her bed. She tried getting a drink of water. She tried things we’ve told her to do in the past, but this time she needed something more. So we gave her the permission to read a book. That was huge for her. Now she has another strategy.
I’m not sure what J’s toolbox of tricks will look like, but you can try giving him a special toy or blanket, one that helps him transition back to his bed. You can create a story around one of his lovies that needs his sleep too and J is just the kid for the job!
If the creative route doesn’t work, encourage him to come up with a list of strategies with pencil and paper. You can help him write or draw them down and tape it up next to his bed. Just make sure you do this hours before bedtime, maybe during dinner or other part of the day. This way, you’re not planting the idea right before bed that he’ll have trouble sleeping.
My last bit of advice, is what I did when my son came to my room: don’t let them fall asleep with you. This is the hardest thing in the world for me. Honestly. My guy is seven now and there aren’t many more times he’ll snuggle with me because he’s had a bad dream.
He’s my last child and the finality of it all can make me a bit weepy. I have to remind myself that I’m playing the long game here. I snuggle because I want him to feel safe and as a child, for him, cuddles = safety. But he’s growing, and needs a sense of independence.
Your J is five now, so he’s still transitioning into big-kid territory. He has one foot in pre-school and one foot in elementary—it’s a pretty wide chasm. Which, may also be why you’re feeling torn yourself. And that’s okay. I think we’re supposed to feel torn. Our kids feel it, why wouldn’t we?
Now you can try these things and it still might take him a while. He may take a few steps forward and then regress back to needing cuddles for sleep. Just remind him that the kid part of the day is over, he needs his rest for tomorrow, and to use his toolbox of tricks. By giving him the sense of being in control of himself, he will feel more confident that he can fall asleep himself.
And in the end, that’s what we’re after.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask? Email me. And what do you think? Do you have any helpful suggestions for helping kids get to sleep independently?