The Curious Case of the Disappearing Sleep

I want to share a tale with you.  Partly for cathartic reasons, but also because we often hear about sleep problems in babies and infants but less about older children, and this may help to provide some reassurance or comfort if you’re experiencing something similar.

Readers of my other posts will know I have two children; a girl who is 5 and a boy who is 3.  As babies, they both presented the typical sleep challenges, which my husband and I dealt with over the years.   Our daughter was a baby who loved her dummy in bed – so much that it took until she was almost three for us to convince her that she should send it away to Santa.  She moved on to her first ‘big bed’ and with that her freedom.  Did you know there is nothing more satisfying as a toddler than leaving your bed over and over again to walk around the upstairs of the house?  We would put her down, she would follow us out.  Put her down, follow us out.  It became the best game.  She would be having a hoot.  We would be stifling a laugh and trying to show her our best stern faces.   After a while, the novelty wore off and she started to stay put.

She became a brilliant sleeper.  Sharing a room with her brother, she would turn over after stories and say to us “I’m going straight to sleep”.  That would be it.  Sleep.  All night.  It was amazing and we became so complacent that we thought it was forever.  When she told us that she wanted her own room, we arranged that with no hesitation, safe in the knowledge she loved going to sleep.

It wasn’t to last.

This summer, our daughter began to fear sleeping alone.    It crept up on us.  We had been to France for our holiday and had a lovely time.  We were due to go to Cornwall not long after.  And in that pocket of time between the two, a nightmare came one night to our daughter’s bed and put an end to her calm nights.   Nightmares are not unusual for her or our son.  We’ve seen night terrors happen (not pleasant) and they’ve spoken of bad dreams.  So, when this one came we comforted her in the same way we would always do and thought that was the end.  But the following night, she refused to sleep in her bed.  A long and very distressed tantrum happened and in an effort to bring peace to the night, we let her sleep with us.

I know there are those who would say this was our first mistake.  On paper, yes, of course it was.  But based upon history, we had no reason to suspect this would be the first of many nights not sleeping in her bed by herself.   I know also there are those who would say we should have toughed it out that first night and been harder with her, but this is less easy to follow through with when you are faced with a distressed child who is absolutely terrified of sleeping alone.

Over the next two months, with the exception of our camping holiday in Cornwall where we slept altogether in our tent, we came to live in a new sleeping arrangement in the house.  It either involved my daughter sleeping with me, and my husband sleeping in her room, or my daughter sleeping with my husband and me sleeping her in room.  Either way, she was too frightened to sleep alone.  So out came the books, websites, family and friends’ opinions, about how we could change this.  We gently probed why she felt like this.  Sometimes the nightmare was the reason, other times it was the shadows on her bedroom wall.  Sometimes the noises outside, often she could not tell us.  In time, the fear the nightmare brought was replaced with fear of fear itself.

I’m a sucker for new starts and I assumed that the new school year would bring a change.  Her regular routine at school would see her return to her room by herself.  Not to be.  And so we carried on with the ideas – dreamcatchers, new nightlights, shifting furniture around, special teddies, sleep creams.  Every idea that anybody had written a book about, we tried them.  Even the book that makes children fall asleep.  Problem was, she didn’t fall for any of it.  The fear in her mind was too great and she knew we were trying to make her fall asleep – which she saw as bad.

Eventually I sought help from the Learning Mentor at her school.  She was a very kind lady who advised she had no ideas that we hadn’t tried but it helped me just to speak to her and actually, one thing she said gave me the confidence to feel empowered that we could change it. She said that, without realising it, our daughter had complete and total control over bedtime.  Everything we did at bedtime revolved around her and we had become stuck and afraid to challenge her.

It’s November now, and we have reached a different place.  From those encouraging words from the Learning Mentor, we gave our daughter a date when we she would be moving back into her room, supported by us but not with us sleeping beside her.   We got ready; another nightlight, new bedding, for a fresh night.  That night was pretty horrible and ended in me sleeping with her for a couple of weeks, but it was a start.  She was back in her room.  Our next step was to extract me from her room and again we did this by giving her notice it was coming up, but that we would stay with her until she fell asleep.   Throughout all of this, she talked about still having the fear of sleeping alone, which her brother was also starting to share, and so we decided they could revert to sharing a bedroom again.

Our bedtime routine is a little different now to that which we had before the summer.  It involves sitting with them whilst they fall asleep, but this is not for long and my husband and I are back in our own room.  We still have a way to go but we’re getting there.

The fear hasn’t gone away, but we have arrived at a more settled sleeping place and hopefully as she grows older our daughter will come to be unafraid of falling asleep.

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