why adopted and foster children have sleep issues (sleep issues part 1)

A big obstacle adoptive and foster parents face is their child’s lack of sleep (aka: refusal to sleep or rest, inability to sleep). Many adopted and foster children have a difficult time falling and staying asleep. Sleep issues can wreak havoc on the whole family, and when everyone’s tired, everyone’s grouchy (at least in our family, I’m sure that’s not the case for yours;)).

Even when children have made significant bonds, they can still have defiant behaviors when they’re excessively tired. (Well, a few of us who never had attachment issues can attest to being testy when we don’t get enough sleep right?) Do you ever swear your child reached in and clicked the “off” switch when they’re sleep deprived? Does ALL logical thinking go out the window when they didn’t get enough shut-eye?

Obviously sleep is important, and we don’t want the lack of it to produce more negative behaviors that add to our already full life. There are a few reasons why our children don’t sleep well and have difficulty falling asleep. Let’s take a look at three of the main ones:

  • Control – Don’t jump to any conclusions yet. This sounds like something harmful that your child is purposefully doing to you, but it’s not. Their early life was usually chaotic and unpredictable. At a very young age, your child may have needed to protect themselves, fend for themselves, and worried incessantly about their needs being met. This creates a need to control their environment.
    In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry talks about a hurting child’s need for control. “After all one of the defining elements of a traumatic experience – particularly one that is so traumatic that one dissociates because there is no other way to escape from it – is a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness. As a result, regaining control is an important aspect of coping with traumatic stress. This can be seen vividly in the classic research on a phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘learned helplessness.’”
    Our children may stay awake because it’s one of the few things they can control.
  • Fear – We had major sleep issues with our daughter, Payton. She couldn’t go to sleep, and we never had a smooth transition to bed. We set up the routine, had a calming relaxation time before we put her to bed (included a back rub in bed), but all that didn’t help (but that doesn’t mean we didn’t stick to it, we still have a soothing transition to bed). We tried the Super Nanny approach that’s “proven to work”; put the child back in bed without saying a word, you may do it twenty times, but after a few days, they will stay in bed. Nope, that didn’t work either. We could put her back in bed without saying a word dozens of times, if not hundreds, and for months, not days, and it still didn’t make a bit of difference. We were EXHAUSTED! Sound familiar?
    After battling the sleeping issues (she also didn’t sleep well throughout the night, she woke up often) for over a year, we attended a training led by Scott Chaussee. During one of the breaks we asked him about Payton’s sleep problems. He asked if she’d been in a Meth home (this was a training held at the Dept. of Human Services, so many of us has adopted from foster care). We nodded our heads, “Yeah, she’d been in a Meth home.”
    Scott said, “Those Meth homes are very frightening, especially at night. She may not have a conscious memory of it, or be able to tell you what’s scaring her, but I would imagine that’s what it is.” He then gave us a plan on how to help Payton calm so she could sleep peacefully. (I will share that plan with you next week.)
    In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel writes, “Unless kids can make sense of their painful memories, they may experience sleep disturbances, debilitating phobias, and other problems.” Some of our children won’t be able to make sense of their traumatic memories. They may not even have a tangible memory of what happened to them. However, I do believe they can heal when attachments are made with their caregivers.
    There are many other fears that can play into a child’s reticence to go to sleep:
    – Fear of the dark.
    – Fear of being alone.
    – Fear of being unsafe.
    – Fear of scary noises.
    – Fear of abandonment.
    Think about yourself and fears you may have had at night, even as an adult. I know for me, if I hear a scary sound in the house at night, I lay awake listening for any other movement, it keeps me awake and on alert. If I wake from a frightening dream, I have to force myself to stay awake so as to not let the nightmare continue.
    So, we can see that even children and adults who haven’t experienced trauma encounter sleep disturbances. How much more is a child who’s been traumatized going to fear being alone in a room, in the dark, unaware of what’s happening in the rest of the house?
  • Their brains are always on high-alert/Worry – This is partly because of the fear mentioned above, but also because of learned behavior. Our children always feel they need to be alert and watching out for themselves, and when their brain is constantly in a state of hyper-vigilance, they can’t relax.

In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes, “If a baby’s primary metronome – his brainstem – doesn’t function well, not only will his hormonal and emotional reactions to stress be difficult to modulate, but his hunger and his sleep cycle will be unpredictable as well.” This absolutely applies to older children as well.

Now that we know some of the causes of sleep disturbance, what can we do? We want to send a clear and consistent message that our children are safe and loved. The faster your child feels safe, the quicker they will heal, which will lead to a more restful sleep and better behavior overall.

Your hurting child needs to know they can trust you. Next week, I’ll give you step by step ideas on how to build trust at bedtime so your child can rest peacefully.

We can’t truly fix the problem if we don’t know why it exists.

Our children may not look scared when they come out of their room asking for the next drink, Kleenex, back rub, or stuffed animal. Their crying and whining may seem like a behavior that just irritates you, but there’s an underlying cause as to why they aren’t able to fall asleep or why they wake in the middle of the night.

Here’s the follow-up post: How to Help Your Adopted/Foster Child Sleep (Sleep Issues Part 2)

Do your children have sleep issues? What do your children do? Do they have trouble falling asleep? Do they wake up in the middle of the night? I would love to hear from you! See you next week, and until then, I hope you get at least one good nights sleep. 🙂


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21 responses to “why adopted and foster children have sleep issues (sleep issues part 1)

  1. I can’t take anymore!! I’m so tired of the night/ morning ritual. My son refuses to sleep. Even on meds!!! My husband is ill , I’m a homeschooling mom. I have five children at home. Because of his sleep deprivation he’s impossible to deal with. My home is now a war zone:/ Please help me!

    • I’m so sorry! Please send me an email and I can try to help in any way I can. Question: how old is your son? Where was he adopted from and how long ago? Previous homes before yours? Has he had insomnia since coming to you? Doctor prescribed medications or over the counter? Tried melatonin? Is he in a room by himself? What is he doing when he’s up at night? T.V. in his room?
      whitts99@gmail.com
      Thanks!

  2. Our adopted daughter is 6 years old but we’ve had her since she was 16 months, sleep wasn’t a big issue until the last year, she refuses to sleep at night. She stays in her room quietly but won’t go to sleep for hours, we’ve bought a white noise machine, essential oils, night night, room darkening curtains, tried natural supplements and being more active during the day but to no avail and it makes for ugly days😕 I don’t understand she just decided not to sleep this last year! There was a couple months break where she slept and her behavior was great. I can’t figure out what is triggering this! 🤔

    • Do you feel she’s frightened to go to sleep? Just in an open conversation ask her some general questions about why she may not be sleeping. For some kids it can simply be that their brain is running and running. It may not be adoption related. Has anything come up that’s different in the last year?

  3. Great post. I work with foster families and I’d love to include it in our newsletter. Would that be okay?

  4. my foster child is twelve now and in the past six years has never ghad a full nights sleep her bedtime is nine and she doesn’t get tk sleep until four and wakes ul for six with ni naps dutmring the day ant advice

    • Is there a reason your foster daughter isn’t adopted? I would imagine a lot of her inability to sleep is associated with anxiety from an uncertain future. Even if you love her, she knows she isn’t adopted and this is unsettling for a child or teenager, she doesn’t know what her future holds.

  5. I’m reading this whilst up for the 7th time with my 2 1/2 year old for whom I have an SGO. She’s been with us for over a year now and never slept. We’ve tried and tried but usually I end up sleeping on her bed with her. She still wakes but is easier to settle. I’m exhausted, can’t work and have moments where I feel I must be doing something wrong. The tiredness is not helping in the daytime either. She will not sleep in the day anymore. When she did it was a battle to get her to. I raised 5 of my own children and never experienced anything like this.
    She had a very unsettled life before living with us, violence, drugs, no routine, neglect and I’m sure we don’t know the half of it.
    I always try to be mindful of her past experiences and the damage this may have caused so reading this when I felt at the end of my tether has really helped.

  6. Hi. Our son is now 4. He has been with us for 20months. He goes does ok (now) but he wakes up every 3-4 hours looking for us. 9/10 he either ends up in our bed or I end up in his. 😒. It’s not ideal and I’ve even had to give a job up because of it. We are working to keep the routine but we are finding this difficult. Any advice is welcome. And thank you for sharing all of your stories. It’s a comfort to know we’re not alone.

    • I think you’re on the right track. Remember the goal is to have him sleep in his own bed, but at the same time alleviate his fears and know he’s never alone. Have you tried laying next to him in his bed (normally I would recommend sitting by the bed, but in the middle of the night I know you’re exhausted) and then leaving after he’s fallen asleep? After you’ve done this for a time, you can then make the time in his bed shorter by leaving after he’s been laying there for a little while. Thank you, and I’m glad you found Lovin’ Adoptin’!

  7. It’s almost 3am and I have been battling my partners 6 year old adopted son for hours now. Looking forward to reading the other half of this. Feeling kind of hopeless. He has been babied by his othwr side of the family to the point where he is so attached to us I can’t even take a shower in peace, and he is behind in school fron lack of disapline. Trying to reset these patterns has become exhausting and I need major help

  8. Thanks so much for this post. My niece was placed in our care three weeks ago. Her life was chaotic before coming to us. Sometimes they slept in a car, sometimes in a hotel, sometimes at other peoples homes, and who knows where else. She has been taught to stay up all night and sleep all day, and as teachers, that has been difficult for us to adjust to. Forcing her to adjust wasn’t a part of what we felt we should do. We have gradually changed bedtime, but it is still very difficult. This article, both parts, are a piece of gold for me!!!

  9. Pingback: Ready to Go Home! | My Beloved Son

  10. I love this post. It has so much to do with post-traumatic stress disorder in children, a subject near and dear to my heart. Thanks for adding it to the DifferentDream.com Tuesday link up.

  11. We’ve been really lucky. Only one of our respite kiddies has sleep issues. He just can’t get to sleep. It has taken a while to work it out and it comes from a fear of abandonment and not knowing what else is going on in the rest of the house. We’ve always left on a night light and the lights outside his room but it doesn’t always help. It seems his foster carers go on holidays when he’s at respite and he thinks they wont come back for him. One of his other respite carers goes to bed at the same time and finds that works as he knows nothing else is going on in the house at the same time. So with some homework the underlying cause of the behaviour has been found, and now we’ve been able to try some different strategies to help the little man.

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