Relax first then sleep.

Sleep is cyclical.  Most of us humans enter into sleep by first relaxing. Then we slip into a sort of half-asleep stage (where sometimes excellent thinking happens — some people keep a notebook by their bed just in case they think of something because they’re not likely to remember their thoughts the next morning), and then we “go to sleep” — entering into deepening levels of sleep and then REM sleep (where we do most of our dreaming). And then we almost — or actually (especially if there’s a little anxiousness) — wake up before entering back into deepening sleep stages of sleep and then REM again. (A child or adult dealing with a bit of anxiety might find him- or herself waking up several times during the night.) Each cycle lasts somewhere around 90 minutes.

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How does your brain cause sleeplessness?

Our brains get used to things and keep us alert (which keeps us awake) whenever things change.   Our minds both get used to and tune out familiar elements of our environments. If your child is used to sleeping with a light on, a dog on the bed, a favorite stuffed animal, noise in the house, quiet in the house, a parent in the room, a sibling in the room, etc., then a change in that element will result in some degree of sleeplessness. It takes time to get used to a new change in the sleeping situation. A change can cause several minutes to a few hours of wakefulness before sleep finally comes. This can happen for a few nights or even a week.

This is just the way our brains work. If your child is used to you being in the room or the light being on or the dog being there till s/he goes to sleep, she will have difficulty getting to sleep if one night you have other things to do, the light is off, or the dog is out. S/he can get used to the change, but it will take a week or so, and if there are intense reactions (by parent or child), it may take a little reward program to settle things with the least trouble.

Sleep happens most easily when there’s a consistent routine within which bedtime is routine — this is true for adults and children. It is almost an art form to be able to get meaningful sleep without a routine. Few people can accomplish getting to sleep easily at differing times throughout the week. About kids, if you’re consistent in your interactions with your child and have your child on a regular (and therefore highly predictable) weekly schedule, he or she will sleep better (and eat better, behave better, feel better and do better in school).

Many people find that it’s generally a better idea to get up and do something meaningful rather than lay in bed, obsessing about the sleep you aren’t getting. Sometimes things are stressing, causing sleeplessness, that can be dealt with as long as the time is available.

If you label a problem a big deal, it will probably be one.   Adult or child, if you tag a sleeping problem a big deal, you may be adding to the problem. When issues are viewed as significant, anxieties and self-doubts, come into play and make things more complicated. Some people may have a sleepless night or two due to some physical or emotional problems or some hiccup in the routine that resolves quickly. But if the problem is “blown out of proportion,” there can be subsequent anxiety about getting enough sleep that can in and of itself cause sleeplessness long after any other cause of insomnia has resolved.

Many, if not most, people who believe they are having sleep problems underestimate how much they sleep.   When there are sleep problems or problems with tiredness, the amount of time not sleeping may be over-reported. (Time flies when you’re having fun, they say, and the opposite is true, too. Time spent laying awake wanting to sleep is not fun, and each minute can seem like ten or twenty.) There are sometimes reasons other than actual sleeplessness that may cause a person to feel he or she is not sleeping even if he or she is actually getting to. Anxiousness, agitation, and certain diseases and disorders can cause brief periods of sleeplessness and poor restfulness during sleep.

When concerned about a child’s sleeplessness, it’s a good idea to check on your child off and on several nights during the times that are often reported to be sleepless times. It’s essential to identify whether there is sleeplessness or whether there is just a feeling of having not slept.

If you are anxious or depressed, your children are probably affected by it. If you’re concerned about sleep problems in your child or children and experiencing depression or anxiety, one or more of your children may be affected. Suppose you or someone else isn’t working hard to convince them that everything is really all right or going to be all right. In that case, your children are probably going to be either anxious and depressed or anxious, depressed and angry — even though he, she, or they may hide their feelings from you — and there may well be sleep problems as a result.

If problems occur that cause worry during the day, thees may interfere with sleep even if they don’t seem to be bothersome at sleep time.

Our minds can do a lot of multi-tasking, and often things that are bothering us are “put aside” and out of consciousness, but they are still being worked on or thought of even if they don’t seem to be. This is even more complicated with children because their minds don’t work the way adults’ minds do, and often they have things bothering them that adults around them wouldn’t think (or wouldn’t want to believe) would be bothering them.

Generally speaking, we all need to feel secure and safe to quickly get to sleep.

If there are threats to security, there are likely to be difficulties sleeping. If there are threats to security, deal with them. If nothing else can be done, work on faith. Threats to safety may be undeniable and may also be subtle and difficult to recognize.

Concerning the issue of security and strategies to feel secure: If you and your child are living with your child’s other parent and you have a much closer relationship with your child than you do your adult “significant other,” the child may develop sleep problems (as well as eating, emotional and/or behavioral issues) — especially if you have lots of secrets with your child that exclude your child’s other parent and/or you rely on your child as emotional support. A child may also feel very insecure if you give him or her the idea that their parents cannot successfully manage adult living challenges or if the child is given too many adult responsibilities or decisions.

Medications and some foods and drinks can cause sleeplessness.

Many medications and some foods and drinks can cause sleeplessness — and, as one ages and ones’ body changes, medications, nutrition, and beverages that didn’t cause sleep problems in the past may begin to cause sleep problems. Taking the drug at a different time, eating, or going drinking later than usual may also result in sleep problems that didn’t occur when the medication, food, or drink was ingested earlier in the evening.

Sleep Problems in Adults

Why can’t you sleep?

In adults, sleep problems can occur because of disease processes, anxiety, depression, physical discomfort, and worry, or stress. (Worry and stress are sometimes referred to as anxiety). As with most areas of life, one needs to be careful in assessing what the heck might be wrong to keep one awake at night. The typical strategy for solving any problem is deciding what the cause(s) of the problem might be and then determining what might be the most viable solution – and then try your best guess as to what will work and if it doesn’t work, rethink.

Can illness cause sleep problems?

Identify and deal as directly as possible with underlying difficulties first.  If you decide that your best guess is that sleep problems are most likely due to a physical disease process (i.e., hyperthyroidism, breathing problems, etc.), see a physician. If you decide it’s most likely a psychiatric problem like anxiety or depression (also a physiologically-based difficulty — which we usually refer to this as a mental health problem), see a psychologist or a physician (your general practitioner or a psychiatrist). Add self-help strategies like hypnosis in consultation with the professionals.

Is stress preventing you from falling asleep?

If you decide that your best guess is that sleep problems are most likely due to stress and worry about something (and you’re pretty sure that your worry and/or stress doesn’t qualify as depression or anxiety), add self-help strategies like hypnosis.