Helping Your Child to Sleep Through the Night - Advice from a Clinical Psychologist

Learn how to cope with common sleeping problems in this interview with Dr. Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, Pediatric Clinical Director Sleep Disorders Center at Allegheny University

Interview By Allison Martin

Parents need accessible information on how to get their children to sleep through the night. Parents clearly want a gentler and kinder approach and a answer for what to do when they encounter obstacles. One of these obstacles, which is usually not addressed elsewhere, is parents own emotional responses to dealing with their child's sleep problems and helping them cope with sleepless nights.

The key things that parents can do to help their children get to sleep is to have a set bedtime (preferably between 7:30 and 8:30), a consistent and soothing bedtime routine, and have their child fall asleep on his/her own.

All children wake during the night. The issue is whether or not they can return to sleep on their own. A child who can self-soothe to sleep at bedtime will be able to do so in the middle of the night. So, the best and easiest thing to do is to teach your child how to self-soothe at bedtime. Within about two weeks most little ones start naturally sleeping through the night. During this process, continue to respond to your child in the middle of the night.

One of the most common serious sleep disturbances seen in children is obstructive sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that occurs during sleep. Some symptoms of sleep apnea are snoring, breathing pauses, mouth breathing, restlessness, and daytime sleepiness. If you are concerned about your child's sleep, speak with his/her physician or contact a sleep center in your area.

Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder that is characterized by a creepy-crawly feeling in the legs at bedtime. People with RLS feel a need to move their legs to make this uncomfortable feeling go away. In children, they have difficulty falling asleep and are often running about the house after being put to bed.

Nightmares are common in all children, especially between the ages of 3 and 6. Nightmares are part of normal development and young children often have nightmares of monsters and scary things. Children also have nightmares about specific events that may have worried them or scared them, such as getting lost in a grocery store or being afraid of a dog. Although there are no data available, I suspect that nightmares are common in adopted children, especially around the time of adoption for older ones. These children are going through many transitions in their lives which can be disorienting or even frightening. The best way for parents to handle nightmares is by providing lots of reassurance and comfort.

For parents of babies in the early days of their adoption, I have one suggestion: Get help! It will be difficult to predict how your baby/child is going to respond to sleeping in a new place, possibly having jet lag, and coping with so many life changes. To start, begin from the earliest days establishing a quiet routine before sleep time and continue to build on that as the days and weeks pass. You will clearly need to respond to your child's sleep cycles during this transitional period. So, as you may be going through your own jet lag and changes in your family, make sleep a priority for yourself by napping when the baby naps and seeing if someone else can help out at night, even if it is just for the early part of the night so that you can get some sleep and then take over the rest of the night.

Expect a time of transition during those first few weeks, while at the same time establishing good sleep habits. Develop a consistent bedtime routine, maintain a similar sleep schedule day to day, and establish a warm and cuddly bedroom that is conducive to sleep.


Jodi A. Mindell is the Pediatric Clinical Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Philadelphia. She holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in clinical psycyhology, is Assoiciate Professor of Psychology at St. Joseph's University, and is the author of numerous publications and books on pediatric sleep disorders. Her book, Sleeping Through the Night, provides practical advice for new parents who crave a restful night.