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Ask Dr. Meg: Back To School Sleep Issues

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

A reader recently wrote to ask my help with her 3rd grader’s newly developed sleep problem.  I think it’s particularly timely since it had a bit to do with transitioning back to school.

Dear Dr. Meg,

My daughter Susie is 8 years old–just started 3rd grade.  Since she go back from sleep away camp this summer, her sleep patterns have been terrible!  She’s constantly up and down–to go to the bathroom, to get a drink of water, etc. She comes crying to us in our room, saying she’s scared, not sleepy.  She can’t really articulate what she’s scared of, but she always wants me or her Dad to stay in bed with her until she falls asleep. She sleeps on the floor of our bedroom, she’s slept on the couch. She’s been awake as late as 2 a.m. and most nights it’s 11 or 12 until we can finally get her to sleep. Please help!


Sleepy in San Antonio

See my answer after the jump!

Dear Sleepy:

Disturbed sleep in a young child who goes away to camp and then returns home is quite common. Usually, however, after two weeks of coercing the child to stay in her room, she will do so. The fact that Susie is willing to give up her favorite items in order to be comforted  tells me that she is genuinely frightened. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps something happened at camp that frightened her- she heard a scary story, a friend got sick or she awoke in the night and was afraid because you weren’t there. It could be many things and when 8 year olds get scared, they can’t always pinpoint why they are afraid. So, you don’t need to push on her on this point.

Here is my suggestion. Because this is more than simple disturbed sleep and stems from a very real fear, you need to comfort her. No, she doesn’t need you to sleep in your bed, but neither should she be left alone in her room to be afraid. Forcing her to do this will prolong her recovery from this. I would either put her in a sibling’s room if possible, or put a sleeping bag under your bed. Have her start sleeping in her bed and tell her that if she is scared, that she can quietly come into your room, get her sleeping bag and sleep on the floor next to you. You can put a sleep mat and pillow there as well. Once she sleeps enough nights realizing that she’s safe, she’ll get tired of the floor and go back to her bed.

At this age, many children begin worrying about death and their parents’ health. Fear issues are common and they do resolve, but will do so much quicker with comfort. You might also encourage her to draw pictures during the day about her feelings- what it’s like being happy, sad, scared, etc. These might give you clues regarding what her fear is all about. Finally, when you take her to her room for the night, turn all the lights on and show her that no one is in her closet, under her bed or outside the window. Reinforce that your and her father’s job is to protect her and keep her safe ALL the time. Let her know that when she’s asleep in her room, many times you and her Dad are awake watching out for her. And- of course telling her that God is always awake watching over her to keep her safe might really help. Good luck. Write me in a month and let me know how’s she’s doing. P.S. I’d skip camp next year. Give her a little more time to mature.

What about you? Anyone out there having sleep difficulties with their school age children?

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