Getting Kids Back to Sleep After Nighttime Wakenings

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The mother awoke suddenly and sensed a presence in the room. Startled and half asleep, the mother tried to reorient herself. Then, she heard this small, little voice.

“Mommy, I can’t sleep. The basement is flooding and the crocodiles are going to get me,” said her four year old son.

The mother was a little confused and then realized her son had been having a dream and probably needed to go to the bathroom. She tried to figure out how that could happen without her having to get out of bed.

Nighttime wakenings are very common for young children. Sometimes the reason for the wakenings is a storm or a nightmare. Most of the time, it is simply a need to go to the bathroom. In the situation above, the boy needed to go to the bathroom which resulted in his bizarre dream of the basement flooding and being full of crocodiles.

Many times children are half asleep when they come into their parents’ bedroom and are not coherent. Some part of their brain has realized that things are not quite right and when that happens, the default is to go see mom or dad.

Since children and their parents are probably both half asleep, the solution for getting children back to bed when they have woken up is to convince the awake half to fall back asleep again. In order to accomplish this parents will have to get up and escort their children back to bed. Odds are that a quick trip to the bathroom will also be necessary.

It is tempting for parents to get into a lengthy discussion with their children as to why they are being woken up. Worse still, parents may get angry at having their sleep disturbed. The lengthy discussions and the use of emotions only serves to fully waken both the parents and children which is the opposite of what is needed.

The solution for when a child wakes up and is standing by her parents’ bed is to be gentle and comforting as the parent starts to guide the child back to her room. During the trip back to the child’s room, try not to flip on the lights. Just like lengthy discussions, lights wake people up. If a little light is needed, consider installing a permanent nightlight.

Once at the child’s bedroom, the parent should tuck her in and kiss her good night. The hard part is then to leave the room. Occasionally parents will get lucky and the child will go right back to sleep. Other times the child will be scared or protest when a parent tries to leave. In this case, a parent should sit by the bed until the child falls asleep.

While waiting for the child to fall asleep can take some time, it is necessary. The only other alternative is to argue with the child which will once again wake them up fully and make it even harder for them to go back to sleep.

As the old adage says, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” In this case, parents need to try to keep children who wake up in the middle of the night in their half asleep state as it is easier to get them back to bed and fully asleep.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on May 27, 2016

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