My daughter has been prone to anxiety since she was only a few weeks old. Now, at 2 1/2 years old, she still struggles with separation anxiety and night-time awakenings. I haven’t found a foolproof solution to the sleep problems that occur so frequently in anxious children, but I have found several techniques that work well for my family.
These guidelines can help an anxious child get an adequate amount of sleep.
1. Avoid “Cry It Out” and similar techniques. Many cases of night awakenings in anxious children relate to panic attacks, nightmares, bedwetting and other challenges that may make a child emotional or anxious. The last thing a child needs in this situation is to be ignored; it will simply ignite his or her frustrations to a level of absolute terror. Proponents of “Cry it Out,” such as the notorious Dr. Richard Ferber, insist that these children learn to self-soothe. However, Dr. William Sears cites dozens of studies proving that they instead simply give up — and this can have significant consequences for the child’s emotional health.
2. Maintain close contact. Anxious children can benefit from close physical contact with their parents and caregivers. It isn’t healthy for a child to sleep with his parents every night beyond his or her toddler years, but there’s no harm in cuddling with children or rocking them to sleep for as long as they need. Dr. Sears reports that co-sleeping for babies and toddlers is not only harmless; it’s actually best for the child’s physical and emotional health. If your child needs more physical contact than occurs with same-age peers, don’t be afraid to give your child whatever is needed to have a sense of emotional comfort at night.
3. Have a routine. While I don’t believe that it’s healthy– or feasible– for a child to have an extremely strict bedtime routine, it is best for a child to have some predictable idea of when and how he or she goes to bed. Give your child a few minutes’ warning before announcing that it’s bedtime. Have a time window of about an hour (in my house, it’s between 7 and 8 p.m.) in which your child usually retires. Prepare him or her for sleep by reading, rocking and singing songs. If your child receives attention and physical contact before bed, he or she will be more capable of handling night-time anxiety problems. Try to be consistent about where your child falls asleep — be it in your arms or alone in his or her room. Let your child know in advance about special exceptions to the routine, such as a vacation, overnight guests, a family emergency or a holiday.
4. Try aromatherapy. Aromatherapy oils have been a godsend for my anxious toddler. When she has a hard time falling asleep, I will dab a small amount of relaxing essential oils on her pillowcase. A few useful oils to try include chamomile, lavender and vetivier. These soothe anxiety while also providing a weak sedative effect. Aromatherapy is usually safe, but ask your child’s pediatrician before using aromatherapy oils if your child is under the age of 2 or suffers from a respiratory condition such as asthma.