“What’s wrong with this child?” I remember thinking this thought repeatedly in 2004 when we first began fostering. “Why won’t he sleep?” “Why does he need to be in our room, with us?” “Why does he keep coming in and waking us up?” “Why won’t a nightlight, or soft music playing, or a bunch of stuffed animals help him?” I had a lot to learn back in that day.
For starters, I stepped into foster care (and adoption) with a mainstream mindset on things like discipline, childhood development, diet, behavior and yes….sleep. In my mind, you have a child…you give a child everything they need…you tuck the child into bed…you kiss them on the forehead…you say goodnight…you turn off the light…end of story. Maybe. Maybe if your child hadn’t bounced from foster home to foster home before arriving in yours. Maybe if they hadn’t witnessed domestic violence as a toddler. Maybe if they were not malnourished as a newborn and infant and living with a fear of ‘there’s never enough.’ Maybe.
A child who has been removed from their first family, even if it were dire circumstances, is afraid. A child who has suffered through a lack of permanency from multiple foster homes, does not trust that this new home is safe or that it will last. That breaks my heart.
When I was growing up I wanted nothing more than to be at my house, with my mom, and dad, no matter what. I couldn’t even make it through a full week of summer camp in Junior High. Even today, my favorite place to be in the world is right here, in my warm home, with my family. As I think about what it must be like to be taken out of your home, and placed with strangers, in a strange home, far away from anything you know, I choke up. I can’t imagine not being able to be in my home.
With that in mind, picture your child. Picture any child who has had to leave his or her home, even as a baby, and you begin to get a clear picture of the fear that lives within them. Fear of the unknown. Fear that you won’t be there when they wake-up. Fear that another stranger is going to show up and take them from you. Fear.
Fear is a hard competitor to battle. It could take years or even a lifetime for your child to heal and build trust. There was a day, not that long ago, when we thought we would never sleep through the night again because we were parenting a child who was afraid. If you’re at your wit’s end, you don’t know how to help your child who isn’t sleeping, and you need some perspective, here are some key responses that can help you as you work to help your child:
- Patience. Remember where your child has come from. They have every right to be afraid. They have no reason to trust you. When a child experiences trauma they will function from their brain stem (survival brain). You must be patient. Keep your tone, emotions, reaction, and body language under control.
- Reassurance. Create security to the best of your ability. Always let your child know where you will be and how he or she can get your attention. They need to be able to access you during the day as well as at night. When they need you during the night, try to remember that this is an opportunity for connection and healing.
- Space. A few years ago I wrote a post entitled “Dear Parent With A Second Bed In Your Room: You’re Doing The Right Thing.” Your reassurance may be creating space on your bedroom floor, or in a part of your room, for your child to sleep each night when they wake up afraid. You may also find it beneficial to create a place to sleep in their room. Anticipating the need may help you both to get a more full night’s rest.
- Consistency. Consistency over time can equal big change. It took us several years of consistently reassuring our child that we weren’t going anywhere. It took years of allowing him to sleep in a small bed in the corner of our room before he finally started sleeping through the night in his own room. You must prepare yourself for the long haul here.
Hang in there. You are not alone on this journey. We have been there and we know exactly what you are going through. Grab another cup of coffee and keep doing your best to love this precious child. We are cheering for you.
Are you parenting a child with sleep issues? How have you struggled? What practices have you found successful? Share with us in the comment section below.