Sleep is essential. I think all of us can attest to the havoc that ensues when we are unable to get a good night’s rest. We find ourselves struggling to stay awake and alert. We may be a little more on edge than usual. We have trouble focusing and making decisions. For kids in foster care, problems with sleep are very common. Why is that you may ask? Simply put, kids who have experienced trauma have brains that are over-functioning and on high alert. Thus, they may have trouble falling or staying asleep. Their brains just don’t “shut off” as easily. When these kids are repeatedly unable to get enough sleep, problematic behaviors can arise, such as impulsivity, irritability, and inattentiveness. Thankfully, there are several ways foster parents can encourage good sleep for kids in their care. Dr. Kendra Krietsch, a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, presented on several helpful strategies, which are summarized below:
- Gather information about the child’s past sleep patterns.
Make contact with the child’s previous caregivers and ask about the child’s typical bedtime routine, whether they struggled with falling asleep or waking up at night, and any items that brought them comfort while sleeping. If you learn, for instance, that there was a really special teddy bear or a book they enjoyed reading before bed, this can be a good opportunity to provide consistency in an otherwise unpredictable situation.
- Create a sleep environment that promotes comfort, safety, and health.
Within reason, allow the child to have a voice in regards to how their room is set up so that they can help create a space that feels comfortable to them. As long as it is safe, provide access to stuffed animals, soft blankets, and pillows that the child can snuggle with at night. For children 2 years and younger, ensure that the ABCs of safe sleep are followed. They should sleep alone, on their backs, and in an empty crib. Other suggestions include keeping the temperature in the home 70 degrees or cooler, turning on a white noise machine to eliminate some other noises in the home that may be disruptive, adjusting lighting based on the preferences of the child, keeping phones and tablets out of the bedroom, and incorporating, instead, things that the child finds relaxing, such as soft music or special blankets or keepsakes.
- Create a predictable daytime schedule to encourage good sleep.
Ensure the child eats three meals a day at predictable times. Have the child change from pajamas to daytime clothes after waking. Encourage the child to stay out of bed until bedtime, unless naps are appropriate. Provide opportunities for the child to get outside and increase their exposure to light during the day. Allow the child to spend an allotted amount of time on electronic devices during the day and set a curfew for when they are turned off at night. If the child in your home finds comfort from watching a show before bed and has not yet found alternative ways to calm down at night, provide opportunities for them to watch shows that are calm rather than overly stimulating and try increasing the physical distance between the child and the device (i.e. watching television rather than a tablet that is right in front of them).
- Establish a bedtime routine that is predictable and enjoyable.
Choose a specific time to start a bedtime routine and stick with it. Dim the lights, play some calming music, use quiet voices, and avoid conflict if possible. Find and incorporate a couple activities right before bed that the child really enjoys, such as taking a bath, playing a board game, or reading books. Consider utilizing a visual cue card so that the child can see what comes next. Be intentional about following the same routine each night. All of these tips promote predictability and help give the child a sense of control before bed.
- Model a healthy sleep culture within your home.
Consider your own sleep patterns and make adjustments when necessary. How do you talk about sleep in the home? Are you getting enough sleep? Have you created a bedtime routine for yourself that you feel good about modeling for a child placed into your care?
Here is a link to Dr. Krietsch’s full presentation, as well as some other resources with additional tips for recognizing problems with sleep and encouraging healthy sleep patterns for kids in your care:
Sleep Issues with Adopted Kids (Creating a Family)
Effective Ways to Deal with Sleep Issues (Karyn Purvis, Empowered to Connect)
Is it Disobedience or Lack of Sleep? (Honestly Adoption Podcast)
By: Kara Long