how to help your adopted/foster child sleep (sleep issues part 2)


Sleep issues are a hot topic in the adoption and foster care community. Last week I highlighted why hurting children have problems sleeping in my post, Why Adopted and Foster Children Have Sleep Issues, and as I promised, I’m back this week to give you ideas on how to help your kids sleep. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to read the post I wrote last week on sleep. Reason being, if we familiarize ourselves with what’s at the heart of our children’s sleep disturbances we can better help them in a compassionate way.

Now let’s get some rest! How, you ask. First, let’s look at some simple steps to take. You may have already tried these, and if you have, don’t worry, a more in depth plan will follow in this post.

  • Routine – Consistency and schedules are especially important for children who’ve been adopted. Even if your child came from a foster home in Korea that had the sweetest foster mom, your child’s gone through a lot of change, and routine is essential.
    Have a calming routine before bed that does not include screen time, rambunctious activity, bright lights, or sugary snacks. (Preferably only veggies if they’re hungry. Because of food issues and adopted kids, we never denied our daughter food. But, she’s a good eater, so she will eat baby carrots before bed if she’s hungry. You can choose the most nutritious food your child will eat.)
  • Rocking – You can read all about rocking (I’m not just talking about infants) and it’s proven benefits here. Rocking can be done with any child that can sit in your lap. I suggest every parent rock their adopted child (for teens, you can incorporate other rhythmic movement during the day, ideas can be found in the previous link), and rocking before bed will help calm your child.
  • Quiet – Be sure that your child’s room is quiet. If their mind is working overtime, any noise will keep them alert and make their mind wander. Any noise coming from outside their room will make them obsess about what’s being said or done. Some children are worried about what’s happening on the other side of the door, and some wonder what they’re missing out on. They want to join the party! In fact, they want to be in the center of it. 🙂
  • Calming music – Just try it. Don’t listen to any other parenting advice about how they’ll get used to it, and won’t be able to sleep without it. If they can’t, so what. They’re sleeping! Our daughter still uses her lullaby (no words) music at night. It does that extra little bit to keep other noises from seeping into her brain, and lulls her to sleep.
  • Night light – Most parents think of this one, but just want to cover all the bases. If your child has fears, which all adopted kids will have some. I mean if you’re human, you have fears, and a night light can help relieve some fear of the dark. Make sure the light isn’t too bright, and if your child’s taking a nap, be sure that the room is dark enough during the day.

*I was reminded earlier today the importance of considering the child’s background. One foster mom said she let her foster son pick out his own sleeping bag. He’d never slept in a bed so they started with a sleeping bag, where he was comfortable, added a pillow, and then the mattress on the floor, then onto the bed. Always have the nice bed available, but don’t force what they child is anxious about.

The above solutions seem fairly simple, but if, in the past you’ve had children who fell asleep easily it may not occur to you to try these different resolutions. My daughter’s Grandma is a perfect example of this. She’s been running an in-home daycare for forty years, and in that time she hasn’t taken care of one adopted child. I have to assume that every child who’s ever entered her home takes naps without a fuss.

Then my daughter entered the dynamic. She needed to take the occasional nap at Grandma’s during daycare hours. It didn’t work. Why? Because Grandma didn’t set the room up for Payton to have a restful nap. First, Payton’s amped up because she’s at Grandma’s and loves to be around the other kids. Second, noise, noise, noise, and for her, this doesn’t work, her brain cannot shut down without a quiet place to rest. Third, light. Forth, it was a warm house. I wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep, and I’m usually running on some barely there exhaust fumes. The sleep situation wasn’t conducive to sleep, so we must make sure that is taken care of first.

Now we’ll move to the more complex, but often necessary plan to help your child fall and stay asleep.

The following ideas are going to take time, but they’re proven to work. You may come up with reasons why you can’t carry out this plan, but I encourage you to try everything possible to follow through.

Getting your child to sleep has many benefits, all of which I am sure you are aware. A tired parent can become easily irritated, impatient, and forgetful. A tired child can become irritable, angry, excessively hungry, have a short attention span, and an inability to focus (the list goes on). This will cause problems at home and school. I’m not saying sleep is going to solve all your child’s behavior problems, because it won’t, but wouldn’t it be nice if it took care of some of them?

It’s best if the following plan be accomplished with both parents. If your child is attached to one parent and will not let the other parent put them to bed, have that parent help in another area of the house; putting another child to bed, washing dishes, picking up the house. Try to get on the same page and work together. (Have your spouse read my first post on sleep issues so they understand why this needs to be done, and read this one as well.)

The plan below is what helped our daughter truly fall asleep and stay asleep. It was also a big part of our bonding experience because it shows the child in a physical way that we’re there for them.

We can tell our child all we want that we won’t leave them, and they are safe, but they can SEE and trust the physical more readily.

I encourage you to begin with the steps listed above before moving onto these. Make sure all your child’s needs are met before going to bed, make it part of your routine if needed. Have them get the drink of water, go potty, blow their nose, put on chapstick, get the bear, get the blanket. Whatever it is that your child asks you for after bed, make sure it’s done before they go to their room for the night.

Each of these steps we did for an average of two weeks (some were longer). There is no set pattern, as each child is different. Just make sure you do it long enough so as not to set the whole process back.

  • After you have finished the above routine and put your child in bed, sit next to your child’s bed and hold his hand while he falls asleep. If your child won’t hold your hand, lay your hand on his back. Be sure your child is asleep (deep rhythmic breathing) before you leave their side.
    If your child wakes during the night, go to him and do the same thing. If there’s a storm, make considerations to let him sleep in your room (check regulations for foster children – maybe you can camp out on the floor, or all camp in the living room if there’s more than one child).
  • After you’ve held your child’s hand for as long as needed (a couple of weeks or more), move away from his bed. Make yourself comfortable, lay down with a pillow and take a nap.
  • Now you will move to the doorway and sit just inside his room until he falls asleep.
  • Next move outside his door, but leave the door open. If he says anything, reassure him you’re there.
    You may be sitting outside your child’s door longer than you were in their room because you are now out of sight. Over time your child will begin to trust that you’re going to be there, as along as you really are (and they will know).
  • If you close your child’s door at night, it will take an extra step. If you’ve never closed your child’s door at night, there’s no need to now (unless of course it’s too noisy). If you do begin closing the door, expect some anxiety, because this will be a big change for your child. If needed, close your child’s door and sit outside his room. If he calls for you, if at all possible, stay outside the door and reassure him that you’re there.

*The above plan was recommended by Scott Chaussee of Ariel Clinical Services.

Always consider what is happening in your child’s world to cause sleep disturbances.

Think about what happened that day, what’s going to happen in the next week or month. Anxiety can cause exacerbated behaviors in hurting children and the inability to fall asleep is a big one. As your child bonds, they’ll become less anxious, but it’s still something to always be mindful of.

About three years after we implemented this whole routine with our daughter, Payton, it was clearly embedded in her mind. For years, when she put her babies and animals to sleep, she placed a chair outside her door and read a book. That’s exactly what we did with her. Thankfully she didn’t yell and scream from her chair, telling her babies to be quiet. At least we did one thing right.

When we’d had success with this plan, we noticed that many families who had adopted their children around the same time as us had kids who still weren’t sleeping. These families weren’t willing to look at what was causing the sleep issues and neither were they willing to put the time and effort into dealing with it.

This is a short investment for a long term gain.

It will probably take a few months, and some lost time with your spouse, but in the end, you will be so glad you did it, I know we are. In the end, using this technique will help everyone in the family.

*Another post that might be of interest: what happens when hurting children can’t sleep?

  • I would like to talk about sleep aids. I feel there is a time and place for natural remedies, even medication. In fact, we tried a natural remedy (for sleep) with our daughter and it didn’t work. However, I believe there is an underlying cause for most of our children’s sleep issues, and if we don’t get to the bottom of it (or bond – even at night by showing them they’re safe) the lack of sleep will continue and won’t be dealt with at the level it needs to be.

good night

I hope these ideas help your family. May you all begin to rest!

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33 responses to “how to help your adopted/foster child sleep (sleep issues part 2)

  1. Thank you so much for your post! We recently started fostering a 7 year old and 5 year old brother and sister. They both have a really hard going to sleep at night and have a lot of anxieties. I have allowed them to do quiet activities in their bed if they are not feeling tired, such as coloring, but now I’m wondering if that is a bad idea. What is your opinion on this?

    • Do they stay up far too late? Are they feeling tired the next day? If they’re doing good the next day I would continue to use your approach. Just a lot if kids with attachment issues would push it. If what you’re doing is working, wonderful. If not, allow them to do their quiet activities for a limited amount of time. 😊

  2. Our adopted 5 year old daughter has a problem sleeping all night. She goes to bed just fine but within a couple hours she wakes up and turns on her ceiling light. When we first got her she had a night light and that was fine. Then we added a table lamp. This didn’t work either. Then we added string lights and still it didn’t help. She now turns on the ceiling light and turns everything else off. She sleeps all night but I wonder because it is so bright in her room is she really getting the deep sleep she needs?

    • I would wonder if it’s affecting her quality if sleep too. However you’ve gone about this the right way.
      Would she consider an eye mask at night to block out the light? Maybe get a really pretty one and make it a fun girls thing.

  3. Hi Charity, I am looking for any help with my 7 year old boy. We are a family of 6 kids. The youngest 4 are adopted from Foster Care and are all Meth babies. We got my son when he was 3 weeks old and went through METH withdrawls with him. I used a sling and a hiking back pack for a long time because I couldn’t put him down. He can go to sleep easy enough now if I sit in his room and hold his hand. But then he wakes up every night wanting me close enough to touch. If I let him sleep with me he sleep all night. The difficult thing is he only does this with me. If I’m out of town he sleeps just fine. I have tried the slowing moving out of his room, but I can’t get passed the other side of the room before he back tracks and we having screaming. Every time I am gone over night I have to start all over. He has no trouble going to school or leaving any other time but sleeping.

    • Hi Alissa,
      I’m sorry it took me so long to respond! To answer your question, since your son is able to sleep without you there, I am wondering if he’s “playing” the situation. If it were real fear he would show this when you are gone at night. I’m sure he does want you close when you are at home in the evening, and adopted children are strong enough that they are able to keep themselves awake if necessary. I would try to comfort him, and give him some more attention during the day. Maybe with so many siblings he’s trying to get your attention at night rather than at the appropriate time. Try putting him to bed with your normal routine, even sitting by his bed until he falls asleep, letting him know you will be leaving his room when he falls asleep. If you will be in the house after he falls asleep, reassure him of this. If he wakes you can go in and comfort him, but make it short and remove yourself from his room.

  4. We have a new adopted 14 year old daughter and she has trouble sleeping at night.She wears cloth diapers and rubberpants to bed at night for her bedwetting and we know that is part of her problem,but she also has nightmares and we use soft music and lullabys after she is in bed to help her go to sleep.She told us that the cloth diapers are hard to get used to,even tho the rubberpants are adult size and fit her blousy.We are thinking about getting her disposable diapers to se if they would help and use the rubberpants over them.

    • You could definitely try something else if she’s uncomfortable. You’re making some excellent steps to help her sleep. Maybe if she has a nightmare, she can tell you at the time and you can reassure her so she can go back to sleep.

    • To clarice-We experienced the same thing with our daughter.she was 13 and going thru puberty and all of a sudden started wetting the bed.We used disposable diapers on her at first,but she broke out in rashes from them,so we put her into the cloth diapers and rubberpants also and the rashes ended,but she was having trouble sleeping with them on.We finially got her youth size cotton training pants and she wore two pair of them with the rubberpants over them to bed and it really helped her sleep better.She wore the training pants and rubberpants till she was almost 15,then her bedwetting stopped.

  5. This is an old post – but I was very thankful to find your blog and to read that sleep issues are totally normal (and need to be dealt with differently) with foster and adopted children! We got our first placements and boy oh boy – did we get a shock! Brother is 1 1/2 and Sister is 2 1/2. Both in diapers and both with terrible sleep habits! Brother would refuse to let us lay him down in a crib and the moment he would be put down, it was ear-piercing screams. The strange thing was, we found that he had NO issues what so ever with sleeping on our couch and would even have full restful nights. Sister was waking up every hour on the hour it seemed like but she too slept w/o issue on our sofa. We quickly realized that they probably A) never slept in their own rooms before and B) that they had probably either slept w/ mom and C) they definitely had not slept in beds before!.
    We ended up getting two king size blankets and folding them up to fit the crib and her bed and then took those cheap microfleece blankets and tightly covered each bed so it felt more like a couch cushion and that seemed to do the trick! We are going to slowly transition everything out, by unfolding the blanket bit by bit and then removing the microfleece blanket until it is just normal sheets. Not sure if it will be the winning trick- but so far it has been working!

  6. We adopted four children from foster care. My oldest child actually came last and has now been with us for 2 years. Just within the last month, he won’t sleep passed 3 or 4 in the morning. We are very on a routine. The children all go to bed at the same time every night. The TV gets turned off at 8:00 and we read to them and they go to bed at 8:15 each night. Charlie usually falls asleep relatively easy but, he wakes up around 4 every morning and wakes up the rest of the children. He shares a room with his 3 year old adopted brother (he was born addicted to cocaine and heroin so sleep is a necessity for him and when he doesn’t get it, the whole house suffers. When we ask him why he is having difficulty sleeping his answer is always “I don’t know” I am just curious if anyone else has ever had this or has any direction. We have a fan in their room for white noise, We also have a night light. We tried him having his own room and he didn’t like that, we’ve tried him with the 2 year old and they don’t sleep. We are out of ideas.

  7. This is our sixth week with a nine months old baby and while she seems to be starting to drink less at night (one late night drink and one more during the night), she is now starting to be awake at night. We wake up every day at the same time, she has two naps during day time, an hour plus or minus, and she goes to sleep at more or less the same time every night, with a bed-time routine. There is no way we can just put her into her own bed awake (at any time of the day or night), as she will keep on standing up and eventually start crying, after she realises that she will have to remain in her bed. Every time we have tried this, there was always one or both of us with her in the bedroom (she sleeps in her own bed in our bedroom), trying to comfort her and tell her to go to sleep. The only way to calm her down is to pick her up and rock her, we managed twice to put her in her bed the second time around while she was not fully asleep, but nearly there. Are we just not persistent enough and we should let her cry longer or instead pick her up and put her down repeatedly after she calms down? It must be said that prior to our adoption she only drank formula, so we are getting her accustomed to eating solid food, she is also in the pre-walking stage and she is teething. So a lot of changes are taking place at the same time. Nevertheless, we would really like to teach her to fall asleep on her own. During the day, she is very curios, energetic and laughs a lot, barely ever cying and in a bad mood. Thank you so much for any advice!

    • You’re doing an excellent job with a consistent routine, which will help her more and more as time goes on. I would say keep doing what you’re doing – it’s GREAT that she’s fallen asleep a couple times when you put her in bed when she was “almost” nodding off. That’s what I would keep doing, and move forward slowly. You are very aware of her and her needs. I wouldn’t push the whole foods, just go slow, she will adapt, but it’s not a rush – my daughter was the same. You are also in tune to all the changes she’s going through. Not sure when she came to you, but there are so many fears for her, and the teething will play a big part in her sleep too – when you’re uncomfortable you don’t sleep well.
      I would not recommend letting her cry longer, this will only exacerbate her fears, and she NEEDS to know you are there whenever she needs you. In my opinion it would disrupt the bonding process significantly at this point. You are gaining, so focus on those gains, and move forward. You’re doing great!

    • I apologize, you did say how long she’d been with you, and for being that short amount of time, she’s doing great! And remember, it could get worse before it gets better. Our daughter didn’t let her fears filter in for quite a while – meaning our “honeymoon” stage lasted a long time. She laughed excessively and smiled all the time, but there were many other signs that things weren’t okay. And why would a child who’s come from trauma and been moved several times smile all the time and be truly happy? Their coping mechanisms have to be strong.

  8. Our 4 year old little girl was a really good sleeper till a month ago. She also spent 18 months with a foster family where she slept really well too. Until last month she slept for 12 hrs every night, getting sleep easily as long as we left the door open and landing light on. Then suddenly out of the blue she refused to go to bed. Screaming for 2 -3 hrs a night. So we started sitting with her holding her hand till she fell asleep. At first this took 45 mins now only about 5. Then 2 weeks ago she suddenly started waking in the night, and again refusing to go to sleep.at the moment we are taking her into the spare room where as long as one of us stays with her she goes back to sleep in 10 mins. However if we were to try to leave she will wake immediately and start screaming. We don’t know what to do to help her sleep through the night. Obviously we are all very tired, including our 8 year old birth daughter.

    • As I think you’ve recognized, your daughter is now feeling comfortable in your home, and memories are probably arising from her subconscious that are scaring her. (Although she probably can’t put words to it, and forcing discussion about it with her will not be beneficial.) You’ve handled this wonderfully. I know it’s hard but I would try to stay in her room longer until she’s in a deeper sleep, not in her bed, as that will be really hard for her to break away from, but near her bed. Have you tried moving farther away from her bed every couple nights or more? Make sure to have consistent conversations, acknowledging that she’s frightened, and if she can tell you why, that’s great. Also, that you are near and will come when she calls for you. Maybe tell her where you will be in the house. If she has a favorite stuffed animal, she can sleep with it if she isn’t already, or purchase a special one she picks out. I hope you can all get some sleep soon!

    • we have a 3 yr old FD that gets up constantly during the night (sometimes 10 or more) We’ve tried numerous things and out of desperation……..I let her sleep with our little dog, who loves sleeping in beds already. 😉 I’m not sure how DHS services would look at this but…..it worked! I’ve had a few other foster parents confess today that they’ve allowed this and never thought it might not be allowed by DHS. (don’t ask, don’t tell?)

  9. I just sat in my son’s room until he fell asleep. I started out with some rocking in the week and then laid him down. It took him 2.5 hours to fall asleep. Toward the end he was kicking his feet in the air and shaking his head to fight sleep. I’ve never seen anything like it. My questions are, does this seem long to you? I think about weeks of doing this and start to panic (we’d got two other kids). Do you find that the time to sleep here shorter as time goes on? And how do you know when to move to the next “stage”? And finally, I’ve read several of your articles and see where you’re coming from. I’m open to rethinking my approach but it’s hard for me not to think that I’m distracting him by sitting in there. Am I making things worse?

    • I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you, I had a procedure done and some medical issues. I would start with considering his day. Does he take a nap any longer? What time are you starting the bedtime routine? What was he doing before you started this routine? Crying in his room or getting out of bed a lot? Was he coming out of his room?
      The 2.5 hours seems a little long but not too bad for just beginning this process. His fears may be what’s keeping him awake. If he feels out of control, he’s going to do everything he can to control what he can (simply his natural response to his fear), and unfortunately, one thing he can control to a point is sleep, or not sleeping. What does he do when you leave the room if he’s still awake? If you’re not talking to him or touching him, it shouldn’t distract him (although in the first stages a child does need touch to know he’s safe).
      Yes, the time to getting to sleep definitely does shorten, as long as everything else is in sync – like his body doesn’t naturally need something to help calm him such as music or a calming oil.
      As far as oils go, maybe try some lavender essential oil wiped on his pillow, or you can drop a couple drops onto a blanket or teddy bear and toss in dryer for a couple minutes, or diffuse it in the room to help calm him.
      You’ll know when to move on to the next stage when he seems comfortable, when he’s falling asleep quicker. Your intuition will help you decide when to move on to the next step.
      I don’t think you’re making things worse. If he’s been through trauma, he needs your presence to help alleviate his fears. Bed time is scary for many kids, and especially scary for kids who’ve been through so much. I know it’s so hard to look at the future and think of doing this for weeks, but it will benefit him and your family in the long-run. I hope it gets better soon!

  10. Do you have anything about a child in the custody of someone else that wants to eat constantly? My niece is only three, and she is ALWAYS hungry. It can be 10 minutes since we ate a meal, and she’s begging for food.

    • I haven’t written a post about food yet. However, allow her to have as many veggies as she wants, always have some fruits and veggies available to her. Please don’t listen to the advice to lock food up, this will create more issues and really induces fear in the child.
      As you’re probably aware, she most likely went through many periods without food and never knew when she would get to eat, considering what you said about her life with her birth mom. She really doesn’t know where that next meal is coming from, worry creates a need to eat as much as she can. Also food is comfort, in a big way, it helps her feel more secure.
      Give her what you normally would at mealtimes and snack time – I’m not saying she has to live on veggies and fruits – and in between she has the option of eating these other foods. She is also probably eating a lot more than you would imagine a three-year-old could fit in their little tummies. Give her healthier options in this case. This will take a very long time to overcome and lots of teaching that she isn’t really hungry, but she can have a couple mini carrots or something. I hope this helps some!

    • I said it will take a long time to overcome, because this is all she’s known in her life (probably even in utero). And because food is comforting it takes that much longer to overcome – think of all the people who don’t have trauma related issues, yet food is a source of comfort for them. I know it comforts me far more than it should. 😉

  11. Thanks so much for the suggestions, Tracy! I wanted to give you an update. Little M’s sleeping is so much better. We purchased a weighted blanket and it really seems to help with the intense rocking. He naps 2-3 times a week only when I “know” he needs one. He usually falls asleep within 15 min. If he is awake longer than 20 minutes I get him out of bed. His night time sleeping has improved so much! In the last 2 weeks he has slept 3 times completely through the night (praise God!) and the rest of the evenings he is only waking 1-2 times and only staying awake for 10 minutes or so. There was just one night he was awake for 2 hours but I believe it was because we had a sitter and she put him to bed. Anyway, things are looking up. We also just got a mini trampoline and hope this will help too!!

    • Thank you so much for the update, I’m so happy things are going better! Oh, and the weighted blanket was a great addition. Many children who’ve been traumatized have sensory issues, so this it’s fantastic that you’re looking at that as well. Kudos!

  12. We have tried everything even Melatonin. Our daughter is nine and we just moved she was sleeping fine now she wants to sleep on our floor every night . She has a very traumatic background.. I have done all the suggestions. Feeling discouraged

    • It sounds like she’s still dealing with fear, and moving can bring up the trauma again. You can put guidelines around it (for your privacy since it’s your bedroom), and allow her to sleep there until she feels safe in her room.

  13. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We’ve been trying so hard to help our foster kids and ended up close to this routine, but it’s so nice to see it all written out with, “This really works!” We’re pretty new at this and have been asking seasoned foster parents about what they do at nighttime but never found quite what we were hoping for. This is exactly it. *Thank you.*

    • Wow, Alison, thank you for reading. I’m so heartened to hear that you are encouraged. I pray that your children find healing in your home, I know they will because you care to work hard at it. 🙂

  14. I have a 2 1/2 year old foster son who has the worst time with sleep. We have tried EVERYTHING. If I stay in the room with him he plays, climbs, and kisses on me (which are good things I realize) but he will do this for hours. If we leave the room he gets out of bed continuously. It’s not until he is totally exhausted he falls asleep. Most nap times take 1-2 hours for him to fall asleep (then he sleeps 2-4 hours). Bed time also takes 1-2 hours and then he begins waking up about midnight.
    He was placed in our home in August and I was hoping things would improve by now but they have not (they have actually gotten worse). Otherwise, he is attaching to me and we have seen some good improvements in his development but I feel like he would improve ever more with adequate sleep. He rocks himself pretty hard before he falls asleep as well as everytime he wakes at night which is usually 3-6 times a night (each time he wakes up for anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours). Needless to say we are all very tired and I think a lot of his behaviors would improve with sleep. He does allow me to rock him now but for very short periods of time. We have established a routine. He get plenty of outside play time as well as lots of one on one time with me. His 15 month sister awoke 4-6 times a night when we first got them but now only wakes 1 time a night every 4-5 days and then puts herself back to sleep. I realize he most likely experienced more trauma than her and that is the reason. Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks for your blog it has been very helpful.

    • Hi Charity, it sounds like you’re doing some great things already. What about taking out the naps? I know it’s OH SO HARD to even consider at his age, many parents feel children should nap until a certain age – I being one of those – however, sometimes it doesn’t work with a child. Since it takes so long to get him down for a nap it sounds like he’s not quite ready, he is tired, but then gets SO much sleep that he is then awake at night. I’m positive trauma has to do with some of this, but maybe start with that? Have a resting time instead of a nap? If he does fall asleep, wake him after an hour, as I wouldn’t let him sleep longer than that if he’s not sleeping at night.
      When in his room really try to ignore him, although you’re probably already doing this.
      Oh, and with rocking him, can you try to make it more intense rocking instead of a lulling rocking? It sounds like when he’s rocking himself he’s really forceful, so this might be what his body needs. Do you have a mini trampoline? Maybe some intense jumping during the day would help?

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