Before we adopted our daughter Kate, nearly eight years ago, I learned that post-institutionalized children, and really most adopted kids, potentially are going to have difficulty with sleep.
We read her file from her orphanage that said she slept twelve hours each night and napped for two hours after lunch. She was three, so of course we didn’t believe them. We assumed they just filled out the same form for all the kids and checked when the kids were in their cribs, and didn't know or care if they were actually sleeping.
On Day 1 with our girl, we found out it was true. She loves to sleep. She was asleep by 7:00pm the night we got her, up at 7:00am the next day and napped for 3 hours that afternoon!
In the beginning, I think some of it was her way of coping with all of the changes and transitions that she was going through, but she still sleeps eleven hours at night and she is soon to be eleven years old. She napped all the way through kindergarten and still will take a nap on the weekends if we tell her to.
Then two years ago, we adopted our youngest son Charlie who could not be more opposite regarding sleep. He hates it. And to be honest, he really doesn’t need to sleep that much. His behavior is basically the same if he sleeps for two hours or ten. But boy, do the rest of us need him to sleep!
He has ADHD, anxiety, fear, boundless energy, and he doesn’t like going to bed because he might miss something. He starts getting anxious about bedtime at dinner and often sabotages our mealtime with his anxiety escalating.
We have a routine down, and though we still struggle most nights, I am glad that we already had a rhythm in place when he came into our home. Here is what nearly every night looks like, as far as our schedule goes.
1. Kids shower/bathe before dinner. When they were younger and needed help, I typically did this before I even started cooking. Now they get in the shower between 5:30 and 6:00 and Charlie often is in the bath the whole time I am cooking. It helps him calm down and the warm (actually super hot is his preference) water soothes him.
2. Try to encourage a calm meal. Of course this is easier said than done… But we do try to speak in a quieter voice than normal. Charlie has a very hard time staying in his seat and we have found that a wiggle cushion helps him, as well as placing a five pound bag of rice in his lap.
3. After dinner, go directly to brush teeth. Most nights at our house this is between 7:00 and 7:15pm. I admit that is very early for kids their ages-- 9,10 and almost 11, but it is the way we have always done it and they don’t know any different. It has never occurred to them that most people go to bed when it is dark outside. (Please don’t tell them.)
4. Fill their tank at bedtime. Whether it is reading to them, talking with them, singing to them, or just laying with them, let them know that they are loved and you enjoy being with them. On the nights when we are rushed or getting home late, our kids usually end up getting out of bed for ‘water’ or the ‘bathroom’ or because they ‘forgot to tell us something’. Really, I think, they just have a need to be with us that wasn’t addressed before they were tucked in.
5. Keep a similar routine, even on weekends. We usually are up a little later on the weekends, either out or watching a movie, but usually not more than about an hour or so later than a school night. Our boys are both early risers and it does not matter at all what time they go to bed, they will be up by 6:30am the next day. It just isn’t worth it to stay up late because we will pay for it with a particularly emotional child who does need his sleep.
So this is our routine, but we still have some issues. Many kids have nightmares and/or night terrors. We have a lot of night terrors from one of our kids.
Night terrors are sometimes hard to identify because it often appears that the child is awake. Ours will walk and talk and have their eyes open, sometimes cry or yell, but never respond appropriately when we speak to them so we can usually pretty quickly figure out that it is a terror and they are actually still sleeping.
Do NOT wake a child out of their terror. We usually just pick them up, and hold or rock them (if they’ll let us) and get them back to bed repeating, “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re here. You’re safe.” At our house, they usually only last a couple of minutes, but sometimes happen several times between their bedtime and ours.
Nightmares are different. A child will usually wake up from a nightmare and feel afraid and want to tell you about it. We don’t have as much experience with these, but we have a had a few. I have no problem letting the frightened child sleep in our room. We have a pallet on our floor that is frequented, especially during thunderstorms.
I would also like to note that Essential Oils help a lot. We discovered the miracle that is Peace and Calming when we were in China adopting Charlie and bedtime was turning into WWIII. Blood was shed nightly, we were desperate, and a fellow adoptive mom let us borrow her oils. It was a game-changer. Now, I usually start diffusing that right after dinner (if I remember to) and he also likes to have his weighted blanket and our big, fluffy cat on top of him before he can settle.
Of course, your child may not need all of these "tools," and I'm not telling you to go buy a weighted blanket and adopt a big fat cat, but two years in the making, this is what is working for us most nights.
I believe in training a child to go to sleep on their own, but sometimes that takes years, depending on what all is going on, and being anxious about getting them to bed and angry when they get out doesn’t do anything to speed up this process. Believe me, we are still working on it.