‘I Can’t Sleep’: School-Aged Kids Have Sleep Issues Too
By Erik Missio
Photo © Andriy Popov/123RF
Nov 13, 2018
My 8.5-year-old daughter, almost perfect in almost every way, is very occasionally a mild insomniac. We’ve worked out a deal where if she goes to sleep on her own without complaining, then I promise I’ll be just down the hall rather than downstairs, checking in on her every 10 minutes. Usually, it works well, but every once in a while, it means an hour of me trudging up and down the hall, whispering in an increasingly exasperated tone, “Go to sleep!” and her responding, “I’m trying!”
As someone who occasionally struggles with his own sleep issues, I’ve read enough to know the worst thing you can do is keep lying in bed at times like these. You’re supposed to get up and go read a book until you’re tired. But this isn’t ideal for kids — I don’t want my daughter hanging out with us downstairs when she needs her rest.
Getting the right amount of sleep is very much a health issue; it’s been linked with everything from attention, memory and behaviour to hypertension and depression.
So, when this happens, I lose most of my evening and then worry about how my sleep-deprived kid is going to be the next day. Fortunately, we’ve got it pretty good. I’ve heard horror stories from friends who face bedtime issues on a regular basis. Getting the right amount of sleep is very much a health issue; it’s been linked with everything from attention, memory and behaviour to hypertension and depression. For parents worrying about their kids not having the right tools to fall asleep, there are experts like Alanna McGinn, who runs the Good Night Sleep Site and This Girl Loves Sleep podcast, and is a director for the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC).
“We help people develop and implement sleep plans, but, honestly, ‘support’ is 90 per cent of what we do,” she explains. “A lot of parents are worried or frustrated, and they need a check-in person; they want someone to tell them what they’re doing is OK. Our goal is to the make the parents sleep experts within a week or two.”
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McGinn has been a sleep coach for more than a decade, moving from working with her friends’ babies to getting certified and leading a staff of over 20 in helping parents across North America. Most of her clients have little ones six months old to the toddler years, but the number of school-aged patients has been growing.
Screentime before bed is part of the problem, but another issue is the trend of kids and tweens being overscheduled — karate classes, swim meets and piano recitals pushing back homework and encroaching on bedtime. Kids can’t function on seven hours of sleep. In fact, according to an American Academy of Sleep Medicine study, the ideal amount for six-year-olds through preteens is nine to 12 hours of uninterrupted, blissful slumber.
Being consistent is critical when it comes to getting a healthy amount of sleep — the same bedtime and same get-out-of-bedtime, ideally seven days a week, helps reinforce limits, boundaries and expectations.
The ideal amount for six-year-olds through preteens is nine to 12 hours of uninterrupted, blissful slumber.
“Kids thrive off routine. A lot of the time, when we see kids acting out, what’s happening is they don’t know the next steps because we’ve given them the control,” McGinn says. “When you follow consistent routines and set sleep rules, the child understands what happens next, and things tend to go more smoothly.”
But what happens if there’s a bad night?
“If your kid is, for the most part, a great sleeper and they have an off night, letting them sleep in is OK. But if it’s happening regularly — say, two nights a week — then you probably need to rectify what’s happening,” McGinn explains. “Consistency is important, but so is a little flexibility. Life happens. Holidays happen. Weekends happen. We have an 80/20 rule: protect our sleep environment 80 per cent of the time.”
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I ask McGinn if I’m helping my daughter by promising to stay on the same floor as her or if I’d be better off just heading downstairs and helping her become more resilient.
“We want to do everything we can to help our kids, but why does she need you on that floor? Is she anxious about something? Once you understand, you can decide on the best approach,” she says.
“But her job should be to go to sleep. With you promising to stay on the same floor, her job in her head has now become to make sure you stay where you said you would. And she also knows you’re getting cranky because you’re stuck there, so this increases her own anxiety,” McGinn says. “If the goal is for her to fall asleep on her own, you need to be able to say, ‘I’m going to go downstairs, but if you promise to stay in your room, I promise I’ll come back to check.’”
Every family and kid is different, and as long as people are getting the right amount of sleep, you can find your own way to make it work.
McGinn has worked with clients to draw up sleep plans and ‘contracts’ with their kids. But she understands every family and kid is different, and as long as people are getting the right amount of sleep, you can find your own way to make it work.
“If co-sleeping works for someone, then they should go for it,” she says. “But if it ever gets to the point where you are unable to function as a happy, healthy family unit, then there’s a problem. If you can’t be the best parent you can be because you’re exhausted or you see your kid not doing well, then you may need some sort of help or intervention.”
And some days, you just need some sleep.