Two sleeping babies

Successful sleep and regulation are two primary areas often overlooked when considering social-emotional development. Challenging behaviors exhibited in children can often stem from difficulties in development, including sleep.

When thinking about how best to support the social-emotional development of a child, reflect on how all routines and relationships are impacting a child’s life.  

If your child has trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, you have plenty of company. Many parents report that helping their child maintain a good sleep pattern is a major challenge. Sleep is a complex biological necessity for us all, controlled by our daily circadian rhythms as well as chemicals we produce and release that help us stay awake and fall asleep. While infants younger than 1 need 12 to 16 hours of sleep, by age 12, our need for sleep drops to 9 to 12 hours a day. 

In every family, there are “larks” who get up early and “owls” who like to stay up late, yet most of us fall somewhere in the middle. 

Sleep experts believe there are three keys to helping young children establish and maintain healthy, successful sleep habits:  

  •  Keep a consistent sleep schedule 
  • Keep consistent bedtime routines  
  • Teach your child how to self-soothe and fall asleep independently 

Sleep is like the unicorn – it is rumored to exist, but I doubt I will see any.

 Dr. Seuss 

8 Tips for Successful Sleep 

1. Evaluate the problem. If your child has sleep problems, step back and evaluate the problem and possible causes. Do they have trouble with bedtime routines or falling asleep on their own? Keep a journal for two weeks to record their sleep patterns and any sleep issues.  

2. Rule out medical issues. Take time to rule out a medical cause for sleep problems, including sleep apnea, sinus problems or digestive issues. It’s OK to make a specific medical appointment just to discuss sleep issues with your child’s doctor.  

3. Be consistent. Get clear about your beliefs about good sleep practices. If you agree with the three keys to good sleep listed above, make sure you are doing what you can to be consistent with sleep routines and are actively teaching your child to sleep independently.  

little girl with Down syndrome laughing with parents

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4. Check your child’s medications. Be aware that some common prescription and over-the-counter medications impact sleep patterns. In addition, medications that include melatonin help enhance the body’s natural production of this chemical and may be helpful. We recommend consulting with your doctor before starting to use a supplement such as melatonin.  

5. Help calm an anxious child. Children who have experienced traumatic events or have experienced separation from caregivers may be in a heightened state of fear or anxiety during the day. These children need extra help to calm down and find their healthy sleep rhythm.  

6. Maintain a schedule. Children who have a good sleep pattern during weekdays benefit from having the same routine continue on the weekend. Maintaining a consistent schedule lets their bodies know when to be awake and when to fall asleep. 

7. Change your child’s bedtime. If your established time for bed isn’t working, try experimenting with changing the bedtime hour for a week and see if a later bedtime results in children falling asleep more quickly.  

8. Experiment and evaluate. Experiment with having more light available in the morning to help sleepy children wake up and turn down lights one hour before bedtime to help children’s bodies recognize that it’s time to wind down. Evaluate whether nighttime screen or computer time is keeping children awake.  

Even if your child has consistently had sleep problems, you can improve the situation. Educate yourself about sleep issues, consult with your doctor and find a counselor who can help you and your child work through sleep-related problems. New adoptive families might be interested in this article on sleep and adoption to get started. With some successful sleep education and a team approach based on good science, you can find that “sleep unicorn” and both you and your child can get a good night’s rest.  

adoptive parents receiving parent counseling with their adopted child

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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.

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