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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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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