No Sleep Is Turning My Son Into A Basket Case

Hi! I am a stay at home mom and mother of three. Trevor is almost 9, Jake is almost 7 and Cali is 3 and a half.
I am seeking your help regarding my son Jake. He has always had trouble falling asleep at night, but now we are getting concerned that it not “just a phase”. He just started 1st grade – which is all day and he is exhausted. We have tried earlier bed-time, later bed-time, laying down with him, a fan, his dog with him, etc… we just aren’t sure what to do. He can be up as late as 10:30-11:00pm. and then have to be up by 7:30am. He’s just not getting enough rest…what should we do???

Thanks so much!

Jake’s Mom (Jess)

PS He says he is afraid of robbers and the grinch. His imagination kicks into full gear , once he hits the pillow.

Hi Jess,

Sorry you’re having such a tough time! You’re sure not alone with this one though, and you’re absolutely right that he needs his sleep. It’s critical for healthy growth and development and seven-year-old Jake actually needs about 10 hours a night! Gulp.

Most parents don’t know that sleep is actually a skill that children need to master while they are young. They can all learn to be good sleepers without too much fuss. It’s just one more of those “good habits” they need to develop as early as possible.

There are lots of adults (former children, if you will) who never got it down as kids and are now either walking around like zombies all day or relying on sleeping pills to make it through the night. Let’s make sure Jake isn’t one of them later on!

So right away, I would ask a couple things, just to rule out any special circumstances.

  • Does Jake have any health issues like asthma or chronic ear infections — ear infections cause pain, especially when kids are lying down, and asthma can make it hard to breathe or cause tightness and an uncomfortable sensation in the chest –that could be contributing?
  • Have there been any major upheavals or disruptions in your life, like a move, a divorce or separation, a job loss, or a death in the family? Kids are extremely sensitive to these kinds of things and their reactions to high levels of stress often show up in sleep disturbances which go away once things calm down and the routine gets reestablished.

Next I would want to know a couple more things, like:

  • Does Jake sleep in his own room or with his siblings? Do they all go to bed at the same time or are their bedtimes staggered? If people are coming in and out of the room at different times, it will make things a LOT trickier.
  • Does he have his own bed; is it made every day? It helps if the bed looks comfortable and inviting, and not like a big, unmade mess.

But I’m going to assume that his health is good and that there have been no big changes — besides starting First Grade, which IS a really big deal for a kid, and could definitely be adding a little to the mix.

So let’s come up with a plan:

The most important thing to get into your head is the idea of ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE!

All kids need a little time to wind down before they can nod off and a ritualized bedtime routine gets them “in the mood.” Once you get it set up, his body and mind will start to read the going-to-bed cues and he will get naturally sleepy as bedtime approaches– if things always proceed in the same way, each night.

  • Let Jake know that you’ve realized how important it is for him to get a good night’s sleep so he will do well in first grade, and grow, and stay healthy. Tell him you’ve “talked to a professional” and she said that he needs a good bedtime routine and that you are going to start it right away.
  • Decide on a bedtime, and stick to it. For him, I would go with 7:30. So a typical evening might go something like this: dinner, quiet playtime or homework, bath, PJ’s, brush teeth, hop into bed with his favorite stuffed animal or blanket and read (or be read to, or look at a picture book) for 15 minutes, and then lights out. You can place a small glass of water next to his bed in order to circumvent the inevitable, “Mom, I’m thirsty!” ploy.
  • Make sure his room is dark — room darkening shades are a great investment and really help when daylight savings time rolls around. He can have a small night light, or you can leave the door open a crack.
  • Make sure that there is no TV or computer in his room. I say until college!
  • Always tuck him in and spend no more than 5 minutes saying goodnight.
  • Make a date — one of the things I used to do with my kids was to ask them where they wanted to go that night. We called it Dreamland. The idea was that they could visit any place in the universe while they were dreaming. They would choose the spot (the moon, Disneyland, the North Pole, etc.) and I would agree to pick them up and take them there as soon as I went to sleep at 10:30 or 11:00. i would start asking them earlier in the day where they wanted to go that night.  Plans were made to travel on a flying giraffe or underwater on a talking dolphin (of course you can breathe underwater in Dreamland) or whatever imaginative story line we could come up with. THEY LOVED THIS!! Then as I was tucking them in, I would tell them to hurry up and go to sleep and to be thinking about all the things we were going to do in Dreamland. They would drift off filled with happy thoughts and a sense of anticipation for a fun time ahead. They loved going to bed!
  • Tell him you will check him later, before you go to bed, and do it. Creep in quietly, pull his covers up, and whisper “Love you.” Given his fears, this will be reassuring to know that you will check him. Also, during the day, in an aside, mention to another adult (while you know he is listening) that you are glad you get to live in such a safe neighborhood. Don’t overdo it, just mention it. Be careful not to talk about robberies or crimes and monitor what he is seeing on TV. You would be surprised how many parents let their kids watch shows like Law and Order or 24 which are filled with SCARY stuff and really not good for little kids.
  • Then say “Goodnight, sleep tight, see you in Dreamland.” And go out the door.

This may take a few days to get established but don’t give up. Be calm, be firm, be kind, but stick to your guns. If he gets up, say firmly but calmly, “Jake, you need to go to bed, NOW. I mean it.” And walk him back if you must. Hopefully, he’ll see that you mean business and won’t put up too much of a fuss.

An excellent book to invest in is the classic by Dr. Richard Ferber, called Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. It’s one of those books to have on hand as it covers everything from setting up sleep schedules, to sleepwalking, night terrors, nightmares, bedwetting, and everything else in between. It’s a great resource!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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5 responses to “No Sleep Is Turning My Son Into A Basket Case”

  1. Jess

    Thank you Ellen for your very detailed and thorough reply!
    To answer your questions:
    Jake does not have any health issues. He is a very healthy, active boy.
    The most recent BIG change in his life is moving to from our home in San Diego to New York. His Dad was home and unemployed for the first 8 months and once he started working began traveling quite frequently. We have had a lot of trouble being inconsistent with our structure and schedules, due to allowing our children to get time with Daddy-when they can.
    However looking back, Jake has always had trouble at night. This problem has been going on since well before our move.
    The kids bed-times are staggered when my husband is working and can be a distraction for him. He uses any excuse to get out of bed.

    Thank you for your time and advice. I am anxious to start trying these new things with Jake and turn these bad habits around.

    Thank You,

  2. Paige

    Great advice! I will use these techniques on my kiddo when she gets older!

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