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Family Life: Why can't my eight-year-old daughter sleep on her own?


Q I have an issue with my eight-year-old daughter’s sleeping.

She is the eldest of three – we also have two boys aged four and two.

She is very bright and outgoing but since Christmas she has been very difficult in terms of going asleep in her own bed. She insists on coming down the stairs four or five times a night. Then if she does go to sleep on her own she will wake up in the early hours and come to our room demanding that we go back to her bed with her or that she comes into our bed. She says that she hears noises or she feels unwell. She gets herself into a state and is beyond reasoning with.

We have made some changes in the house to try and help: we have cut out TV in her bedroom, we have allowed her to have two lights on all night and we have introduced good behaviour charts. During the day she can be very bossy to her brother and can also fly off the handle when you ask her a simple question. The whole dynamic of the house has been upset. We are worried that the lack of sleep and the interrupted sleep will start to have an effect on her school work and also her health. Could it be that there is a development of hormones which are leading to this behaviour change?

A There are many possible reasons why your daughter's sleep is so disrupted. The most likely is that something occurred over Christmas, that caused her anxiety.

We all like to have the maximum amount of comfort and security when we are falling asleep. We need to feel warm and safe to allow ourselves to relax and drift off. If anything disturbs our equilibrium we often notice that our sleep is the first area to become disrupted.

The classic fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson of the 'Princess and the Pea' is about a girl who has a disturbed night's sleep because she feels a pea hidden under 20 mattresses. The story is mainly about identifying royal heritage, but it shows that if things are not right it can be hard to sleep!

The fact that your daughter has become flighty during the day too suggests that she does indeed have something on her mind.

It is important that she feels that her anxieties are attended to. Talk to her about her worries and give her some simple ways to deal with anxieties, such as practising deep breathing, to relax.

The key to resolving sleep difficulties for children is to try to re-establish their comfort and security as they go to bed.

Leaving a small night light on during the settling-to-sleep phase is a great start to building up a comforting bedtime routine. Perhaps having two lights on might be a bit much and may leave the room too bright -- the visual cue of darkness is helpful for promoting sleep.

Look again at her whole evening routine, some children can be over-tired by the time we send them to bed, such that they have a 'second wind'.

Try to ensure that the evenings wind down rather than wind up.

Your daughter, specifically, can practise her deep breathing just as she is going to bed or she may like to listen to a meditative CD.

You describe that she comes down the stairs four or five times before she settles to sleep and so it seems she has come to rely upon the interaction or the sense of connection that 'visiting' you brings. It is understandable that children like the comfort of knowing heir parents are there while they fall asleep.

Naturally, that is disruptive and so to change this you need to start giving her regular visits instead. Start by returning to check on her every five minutes, on the understanding that she will wait for you to come to her.

Because you are visiting her so regularly you don't have to stay in her room for any length of time. But be diligent in turning up as you have promised. She needs to know you will come to her so she doesn't need to go to you.

After about a week you can start to extend the time between visits and she should remain calmly in bed. At the moment she demands lots of attention if she wakes up. However, you should find that if she has a better habit of falling asleep, she will be better able to settle back to sleep.

So, initially, it might mean that you have to go back to her room if she wakes, but you won't have to stay. In due course you shouldn't even have to get up and she either won't wake or will settle herself.

With a bit of emotional support and some perseverance and patience you should all be getting a better night's sleep soon.

Health & Living