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My 8 year old is so stressed out about not getting enough sleep that she can't sleep. When school started the teacher explained to them that is is important to get 10 hours of sleep a night because studies show people that sleep well live longer. Since then she has been waking up every night several times in tears because she's scared she's not getting enough sleep.

Several family members and the teacher have tried to explain to her that she's not going to die if she doesn't get 10 hours a night but she still wakes up in the middle of the night. I've tried letting her sleep in my room. I tried taking the clock out of her room but she just gets up and looks at the time in the kitchen. She used to sleep around 8-10 hours at a time and rarely woke up in the middle of the night. During the day she's cranky and emotional and will cry at the drop of a hat because she's so tired. Nothing I or anyone else says seems to help.

Any thoughts on how I can can help her through this? Should I take her to a counsellor?

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Save the counselor for later - try to resolve it yourself first. How long has this already been going on, is it a recent thing? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Oct 3 '13 at 18:54
    
can`t she sleep during the day, so that those magical 10 hours come from many small sleeps ? not a solution, but perhaps could calm her down a little –  woliveirajr Oct 3 '13 at 19:23
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5 Answers

I know this sounds strange... but instead of trying to figure out what to say, I would instead listen to her - what is going on inside her, in her head and in her heart - her fears and her longings. And then validate them. It's real for her. Telling her more information isn't going to stop her from being afraid.

Daughter - mommy I'm terrified I'm going to die if I don't sleep enough... (tears, sniffle, sniffle)

You - aww sweetheart... I really hear that you're scared you might die! That must be incredibly rough for you... and I guess you're pretty sad, too, huh?

If you wanted you could always share how it is for you ("I'm confused what to do to help you sweetie... I know you're gonna be fine, but I don't know what to say to help you trust that."). But most of all I'd listen to her and really try to let her know that she is fine just the way she is - not by speaking those words to her - but by actions, by showing her that she doesn't need fixing, that you love her and don't need to make her be any different than she is...

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Your question is a testament to the power of words when delivered by an authority figure! What the teacher has taught your daughter is actually wrong - there are no such studies because it is impossible to establish causality between sleep and long life.

The Science

Studies actually show an ASSOCIATION between getting 6-7 hours of sleep per night and longer life. This doesn't mean the sleep caused the longer life - perhaps people who are healthy need 6-7 hours of sleep and also live longer. The truth is that everyone's sleep needs are different, and your body tells you what it needs by feeling tired. Because they are growing, children tend to need more sleep than adults, but there is no magic number.

Suggestions to help your daughter

  • Discuss: You probably don't want to undermine your daughter's teacher with her, so you might say to her that her teacher is right that it is important to get enough sleep, but you have read the research, and really there is no magic number of hours that anyone needs. Some people get 10 hours and some people get a lot less. What's important is to rest when your body is tired.
  • Diffuse: To remove stress from the conversation, you might try teaching your daughter that we rest when we are tired, and if our body needs sleep, it will come. If it doesn't come till late, that's okay. Some nights we get more and some less.
  • Prevent: One way to prevent sleeplessness is to get plenty of sunshine. "When people are exposed to sunlight or very bright artificial light in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night." (NCBI, Benefits of Sunshine: A Bright Spot for Human Health). You should also avoid exposure to computer or television screens near bedtime (US Dept of Health and Human Services, Screen Time Near Bedtime Means Less Sleep for Kids). Also, make sure your daughter gets an hour of exercise during the day (NIH, The 6 "Bests" About Kids' Exercise).
  • Relax: Find relaxing things to do in the evening (bath, read, bake something, play a table game) that take her mind off of sleep. Also, find a simple phrase that expresses how you want her to think about sleep, so that you are responding the same way each time she raises a concern about her sleep at bedtime ("Sleep will come when your body is ready." "Some nights I sleep a lot of hours, and some nights I only sleep a few. That's okay.")
  • Limit: Once you have had an initial conversation to address her misconceptions about sleep, limit the amount of time you are drawn into big discussions about sleep - you may be adding energy to her worries by giving it so much attention. Stick to your chosen sleep phrase, and change the subject.
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My kid was also having trouble getting to sleep because he was too nervous. This is what we've done:

  1. More exercise, that helps with being tired and also feeling better about yourself.
  2. Bath before bedtime
  3. Back stroking or massage before going to bed. Also I talked to him very quietly to check by himself and feel how tired his legs, arms or face where. This last part seemed to help a lot, now he doesn't need it anymore.

I liked a lot the answer form Jason. Maybe in that conversation, you can make a plan with her on what to do when she awakes at night (maybe she can come to your bed when she wakes up, so you stroke her back, or maybe she can come up with her own idea on what to do). Coming up with a plan usually helps.

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I fixed your formatting :) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Oct 5 '13 at 18:59
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You may also want to introduce her to the concept of segmented sleep: patterns of sleep that involve wakeful periods in the middle of the night are now being considered the historical norm.

Next would be to think of relaxing and constructive things for her to do during this time to help relieve her anxiety . Meditation (of which the 'body scan' mentioned by user Patacual is one option, mantras are another format that may be helpful), reading, journaling, letter writing, arts and crafts may all be good options depending on her interests.

Avoid activities that involve a screen (tv, computer, iphone, ebook) and ones that have a deadline (where she feels that she HAS to wake up to get them done before morning - that way if she starts sleeping straight through the night it doesn't trigger a different anxiety).

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I recommend teaching her how to relax and meditate. Many people say that an hour of meditation is as good for you as an hour of sleep. Some even say that an hour of meditation is like two hours of sleep. If you tell her this, she will probably be willing to learn how to do it.

Many people who are tired fall asleep if they try meditating lying down - and there's nothing wrong with that! But if she doesn't fall asleep, she will get some benefit - and she will believe she is getting a benefit - just from meditating.

You can get good instructions online for how to relax, control your breathing, and calm your mind, or if she prefers printed books there are dozens of them and some are specifically aimed at children. You can also buy guided relaxation audio items - CDs, DVDs, or MP3s. She can even use the techniques for 1 minute right before a test or other stressful situation.

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This will only give more focus to her disbelief that it's something wrong with her that needs special action to be fixed. –  awe Oct 4 '13 at 10:05
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