what happens when our hurting children can’t sleep (adoption/foster)

If you follow my blog, you have seen mention of sleep a couple times in the past month. Is this because sleep falls into my TOP 5 favorite things to do? Maybe. 😉 Well it’s really because sleep is important. As I’ve previously written about (you can find links at the bottom of this post), sleep doesn’t come easily to our kiddos who have been through trauma. I hope to help you find ways to get your child to trust you and in turn have restful slumber. My purpose is trifold; I want your child to trust you and relax, I want your child to sleep, and I want you to sleep. Why? Because first, trust is the basis of our child’s progress, and second, sleep is imperative.

I didn’t know how important that sleep was until this interview with a neuroscientist named Russell Foster fell in my lap, or more appropriately, my computer. But don’t jet out of here because I said “neuroscientist.” Trust me, this is some very basic information, it’s not scientific gibberish that I wouldn’t understand myself.

The interview was done by Brooke Borel, and it’s called The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health: A Q&A with Circadian Neuroscientist Russell Foster. It was a followup to his TED talk (by the way if you haven’t discovered TED yet, I highly suggest it), which I will also give excerpts from in this post. As I read the interview I saw connections between sleep and our children’s behaviors, I also realized how important sleep really is. Okay, in all honesty here, I didn’t just realize how essential sleep is, I’ve known it my whole life, and that is why I try to get as much shut-eye as possible.

Foster says, “[Sleep] in a single behavior, it is the most important thing that we do.” If sleep is such a critical aspect of our daily life, how does the lack of it affect our child? On a basic level, sleep deprivation causes “poor memory, poor creativity, increased impulsivity, poor judgement, and sustained stress which equals a weakened immune system.”

I wonder, if our children aren’t sleeping well, or at all, how can we expect any sort of positive behaviors from them? If we are working with them on creating new behaviors, how can we expect anything to stick if they aren’t receiving an adequate nights rest? If they can’t think on their feet, if they make wrong choices, can some of the issue be contributed to insufficient sleep? If their immune systems are compromised, can we attribute some of the cause to a shortage of sleep? I believe that these symptoms can be caused by other triggers, but we cannot discount the importance of sleep and the outcome if it is inadequate.

Foster’s team also found that “sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to recall traumatic images, which could have therapeutic implications for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.” That was shocking. This is significant for our children who have been through traumatic events, whether they have been diagnosed with PTSD or not. This means that our children could be keeping themselves awake so they don’t remember their traumatic experience as vividly. I believe that our children are keeping themselves awake because they are frightened, they are trying to control the situation, etc., but this adds a new element. (You can see my thoughts on the aforementioned here.)

To take this farther, researchers at Oxford wanted to test whether people remembered traumatic events when they were sleep deprived. They showed subjects a twenty-minute video of “depressing episodes of funerals, car accidents,” and such. The researchers then kept the patient awake all night and monitored the effect of sleep deprivation. “What’s so interesting is that [Porcheret] found that flashbacks – the remembrance of the events from these films – are much lower if people have been sleep deprived.”

Obviously sleep is essential to our well-being, but do you know how quality sleep is necessary for us to function at our optimum level? Foster says that thirty-six percent of our behavior is sleep behavior. “If you live to age ninety, thirty-two years of your life will be spent sleeping.” The Elizabethan dramatist, Thomas Dekker said, “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”

This was also surprising to read in Borel’s article, “If you’re a practicing clinician, a [general practitioner], for example, it’s been estimated that around 30 to 40 percent of all the problems that you’ll see in terms of patients will either be directly or indirectly related to sleep problems. It is a really important fundamental biology and has huge clinical application, and yet it is being largely ignored both in terms of teaching and in terms of basic science.”

Foster lays out three main reasons for sleep:

  1. Restoration
  2. Energy conservation
  3. Brain function. Regarding brain function Foster says, “If you get someone to learn a task and you sleep deprive those individuals, the ability to learn that task is attenuated [lessened].”
    He added, “If you don’t sleep, you don’t fly.”

The following information is from Russell Foster’s TED talk:

When sleep increases you will have:

  • Concentration
  • Attention
  • Decision making
  • Creativity
  • Social skills
  • Health

When sleep decreases you will have:

  • Mood change
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Impulsivity
  • Tendency to drink & smoke

We can see from Foster’s research that sleep is imperative to good health. We can also see that our children may be keeping themselves awake because they are trying to keep memories of their trauma at bay. This can be helped by helping them make new and safe attachments. As our children make those attachments and feel they can trust the adults in their life, they will relax and sleep better, which will in turn help their brain function, health, decision making capabilities, social skills, attention to tasks, decrease their anger and stress, and so much more. Below are some links that explain why our children have trouble sleeping and how to help them sleep.

why “good nights” are illusive (sleep issues part 1)
no really, good night (sleep issues part 2)

2 responses to “what happens when our hurting children can’t sleep (adoption/foster)

  1. I tried rocking with our one year old…she didn’t want to sit still and facing me was rather awkward. What do you suggest?

    • She doesn’t need to face you at first if it’s awkward for her. Did you try doing it for a very short time? Or maybe say, “We”ll rock for two minutes, then do something you want.”

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