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Bedtime Battles and Night Wakings: Improving Sleep for Foster Children

Between adjusting to a new home environment, coping with past trauma, and managing difficult emotions, it's no wonder some foster children struggle with bedtime battles and frequent night wakings. As caring foster carers, improving our children's sleep is an act of love that can have profound effects on their health, behaviour, and overall well-being.




Understanding the Causes

There are many interlinked reasons why foster children may have trouble sleeping or wake frequently at night. Disruption to their normal routine, separation from family members, anxiety about the future, and post-traumatic stress can all interfere with feeling safe and settled at bedtime. Some children also suffer from undiagnosed sleep disorders like sleep apnoea. Nightmares and bad dreams are very prevalent as well.


Creating a Soothing Bedtime Routine 

Establishing a comforting and predictable bedtime routine is key to reducing bedtime struggles. The routine may involve a warm bath, brushing teeth, reading stories, singing songs, or saying prayers. Turn off screens at least 30 minutes before bed and keep the lighting dim. Lavender essential oil or a sleepy-time diffuser can help create a relaxed atmosphere. Use soft, soothing music if needed to dampen outside noises. The whole mood should signal to your child's body and mind that it's time to unwind.




Addressing Fears and Anxieties

Many foster children worry about being alone at night or have separation anxiety from former caregivers. Leave a night light on, check on them if they call out, and reassure them that you're close by. Let them bring a comforting stuffed animal or blanket to bed. Talk through their fears and empower them to use coping strategies like hugging a favourite toy when they are scared. Teach them to do belly breathing or muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety. 




Discouraging Night Wakings

When children wake repeatedly at night, it can reinforce the behaviour, so avoid giving it too much attention. Redirect them calmly back to bed with minimal interaction. However, make sure they don't need to use the bathroom or get a drink of water first. Allow a night light and noise machine to create a more settled environment. If anxiety is causing wakings, a dream catcher or "monster spray" they can use themselves gives them a sense of control.


Adjusting Sleep Schedules

Work to shift bedtime earlier by 15-minute increments if the children are overtired and pushing sleep later. Also, make sure they wake at a consistent time in the morning. Limit daytime naps to 1-2 hours max and not after 3pm. Blackout curtains or shades can make mornings easier. Consider moving extracurricular activities to earlier times if after-school sports or social activities make evenings too stimulating.


Seeking Professional Help 

For ongoing sleep disturbances, contact your agency, such as Foster Care Associates, and ask if it is appropriate to consult your GP or a sleep specialist. A GP or consultant can check for underlying causes like sleep disorders. A child psychologist can also help children work through traumas, fears and separation anxiety manifesting at night. Temporary medication may ease sleep issues while you work on adjustments together, but it should be considered carefully. 


Being Patient and Consistent

Change takes time, so implement new strategies consistently for several weeks to see improvement. Praise every step in the right direction and understand occasional setbacks are normal. Your support and compassion will give your foster child the inner security to work through challenges. With your guidance, the whole household will eventually get more restful nights. Sweet dreams!


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