The Bedtime Narrative for Kids Who Struggle with Sleep Anxiety

I’ve recently had a number of requests for support from parents who are struggling with their child’s sleep anxiety. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario:

“They refuse to let me leave the room, I have to lie in bed with them until they finally fall asleep.”

“They wake up constantly during the night and I have to be right next to them or they’ll panic.”

“Every time they wake up they come into my room and spend the rest of the night in my bed.”

“They’ve been sleeping in my bed all night, every night.”

I can relate to the exhaustion – you try to be empathetic to your child’s anxiety and comfort them, you feel guilty leaving them in fear as you set boundaries, you’re desperate for a good night of sleep, you resent them for denying your attempts to create a healthy routine…you are on the brink of losing your sanity. I was there – every night for the first two and a half years after my son arrived home, putting him to sleep was a three-hour battle that left all of us in tears, and he woke like an infant every hour or two needing us to go through the charade all over again. We tried everything we could think of to show him that we would never leave him, that he was safe, and that he could handle falling and staying asleep in his bed across the hall from our own. Nothing seemed to work.

Now…you would think that being an EMDR-trained psychologist who specializes in working with children would have its advantages as a parent. And it definitely did…once I had a brief, lucid-enough moment to remember that I even had these skills amid the zombie-like exhaustion. It finally occurred to me that the positive resourcing element of EMDR could be used to give my son a safe, consistent narrative about sleep that his brain would accept – a concept that required more than our typical verbal reassurances or physical comfort.

So, I created a short bedtime narrative that included EMDR tapping as a resourcing element. My son calls it “The Bedtime Song” (even though I would never sing it because that would be sure to give him nightmares and start the whole horrifying lack-of-sleep cycle all over again). I shared this narrative with him in a gentle voice each night as I tapped on his shoulders, back-and-forth, as we lay in his bed ready to fall asleep. It went like this:

“When it’s time for bed at night, Mommy and Daddy help you get ready. We brush your teeth, put on your pj’s, and read a book on the couch while you cuddle with your blankie. When it’s time for sleep, you might feel sad or scared or worried you’ll miss out on something fun, so your body starts to move all around. But you know that Mommy and Daddy will be here all night long to take care of you and keep you safe, so you let your body relax and be still, and you close your eyes and sleep all through the night in your bed. When you wake up in the morning, you feel happy and proud and full of energy to play together!”

Within few days, he was falling asleep on his own in minutes and sleeping in his own bed the entire night. HALLELUJAH!

We continued to use this narrative every night, and even sometimes during the day when we had a few spare minutes, for the next few months. He often asked for it and recognized it as part of the routine – he’d flop onto his belly in bed, get comfortable, and point to the backs of his shoulders as he sleepily commanded, “Do the Bedtime Song, Mommy.” There are still times when he asks for it occasionally, and it lets me know when his anxiety is present again and in need of support. It’s an incredible thing that he recognizes this, too.

If your child is struggling with sleep, I’d encourage you to try this resourcing narrative with them. Revise the specifics of the story to fit your family’s roles and bedtime routines, but be sure the narrative contains the following elements:

  • The activities leading up to sleep that signify the anxiety is approaching
  • The emotions that arise with the anxiety
  • The body cues that accompany the anxiety
  • The dependable presence of safe caregivers throughout the night
  • The permission and power to take control over your body’s anxiety
  • The feelings that will accompany a successful night of sleep
  • The caregiver-child reconnection in the morning
  • The entire narrative should be no more than 30 seconds long

The tapping (which stimulates the two hemispheres of the brain in a way that helps to reinforce the narrative – check out www.EMDR.com for the science specifics) should be done with your fingers or hands, and alternate back-and-forth between the right and left sides of your child’s body – this can be on shoulders, hands, knees, feet – anywhere that feels comfortable to your child and won’t lead to a distracting tickle-fest. It should be a gentle, rhythmic tapping that is noticeable, but can fade into the background of your child’s awareness as the narrative takes over. Be sure to continue the tapping through the entire verbalization of the narrative. You can repeat the narrative and tapping as many times as your child requests it. Stick with this process for at least two weeks before expecting progress – a month is even better.

I’m not promise a miracle cure for sleep struggles – this works beautifully for some kids and has no impact on others. But I’ve seen it be successful enough times to say it is definitely worth a try.

Template of the Bedtime Narrative:

“When it’s time for bed at night, [Caregivers] help you [steps of bedtime routine leading to sleep]. When it’s time for sleep, you might feel [3 emotions related to sleep anxiety] about being alone in your bed, so your body [physical manifestations of anxiety]. But you know that [Caregivers] will be nearby all night long to keep you safe and take care of you. So you let your body relax and be still, and you close your eyes and sleep all through the night in your bed. When you wake up in the morning, you feel happy and proud and fully of energy to play together.”

You can view a model of the tapping process and learn about additional strategies to help your child manage nighttime anxiety by visiting the Beyond Words Psychological Services educational videos site: Rent Video #11 “Responding to Trauma Reactions: Pt. 6 Bedtime Struggles” at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/bwpseducation.