If you’re a foster parent, you likely already know that sleep can be challenging for a child with trauma. However, there are techniques and strategies you can use to help your child get the rest they need. Let’s take a look at how you can approach sleep "training" for foster kids.
Understand the Impact of Trauma on Sleep Habits & Manage Expectations
It’s important to understand the ways in which trauma impacts sleep. Children who have experienced trauma may have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or they may wake up multiple times throughout the night. They may also suffer from nightmares or night terrors, leading to further disruption of their sleep cycle. It is essential that foster parents provide an environment that is nurturing and supportive for their children as this allows them to feel safe and secure when sleeping. (This means no "cry it out" for foster kids.) You may want to prepare yourself (and, as needed, your partner) for a newborn-parent sleep pattern the first few weeks after receiving a new foster placement.
Establish a Bedtime Routine
Creating a consistent bedtime routine can help your foster child relax before bedtime and make it easier for them to drift off to sleep. This could include activities like reading stories together or giving them a warm bath before turning off the lights and getting tucked into bed. Whatever activities you decide on, make sure to keep them consistent each night so that your foster child knows what to expect when it’s time for them to go to bed.
Help Them Feel Comfortable in Their Room During the Day
It's unlikely a child (with or without trauma) will feel comfortable alone in their room at night if they don't even feel comfortable being alone in their room during the day. After you've begun establishing attachment with your foster child, play together in their room; then, let them know you're going to leave the room to get a drink of water or get something else and you'll be right back. They may need to be reassured and encouraged to continue playing, especially the first few times. Then leave and come back fairly quickly. Do this day-after-day extending the amount time you're gone by a minute each time. This is also a good attachment-building exercise because it lets them know even when you're gone, they can know you're coming back soon.
Teach Coping Strategies
If your child experiences difficulties getting or staying asleep, it’s important to help them develop coping strategies so they can manage their symptoms during these episodes. For example, teach your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation so they can use them when they feel overwhelmed at night. (For babies and toddlers, you can model deep breathing and massage or compress their arms or legs to encourage relaxation.) For verbal children, you should encourage them to journal or talk about their feelings before starting their bedtime routine; sometimes just articulating their feelings can provide some relief from stressful situations and help them get to sleep easier.
Teach Affirmations or Reassuring Mantras
My go-to affirmation for my fosters is "You are so safe and loved". I say this to them often, particularly at bedtime and regularly make them say it in first person ("I am so safe and loved"). After a month or so of being with us, they often begin to say it themselves without my prompt. Once they have this down, I let them know, if they're scared or feeling lonely at night, they should say this to themselves while they calm down.
Just as parents of a newborn often ask for help after they bring a baby home, you may want to reach out to your village to see who can provide support. Can someone watch the child so you can get some rest during the day once every few weeks? If you have a partner, can you alternate night shifts so that it doesn't all fall to one person? Remember, you need sleep to be the best foster parent possible, so don't push yourself more than you need to.
Talk to Their Doctor
Your foster's first medical appointments may not have provided a clear picture on all of their medical needs. If your foster child is still significantly struggling to get and stay asleep after a few months, talk to their doctor and determine if any additional testing or support is needed.
Helping your foster child create a healthy sleep pattern requires patience and understanding. Establishing routines, providing emotional support, and teaching coping strategies can help ensure that our kids get enough rest each night so they have the opportunity to be calm and happy kids during the day. With consistent effort, better sleeping habits can soon become second nature!
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I'm a foster mom, bio mom, working mom, special needs mom, busy mom. I'm also married to my high school sweetheart, I'm a proud 23-year childhood cancer survivor, and I'm passionate about serving my community.
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