The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My daughter’s sleep issues have resurfaced with the pandemic, and I’m losing my mellow mojo

(Chanelle Nibbelink/For The Washington Post)

It is 9:35 p.m., and I am still sitting on the floor beside my 8-year-old daughter’s bed, in sukhasana, crisscross applesauce, as if pretending I’m at yoga will magically clear my mind of all the things I would rather be doing: drinking wine, scrolling through Instagram, trying to forget that my city, and the world, is in an unprecedented crisis.

Even in these warped days of virtual school and Zoom playdates, her routine never varies. We do all the things: limit screen time, read quietly, no sugar. By 8:30 or — lately — 9 p.m. (what is time now, anyway?) she is snuggled in with her shredded security blanket, a menagerie of stuffed animals and a Sleep Sheep that hasn’t bleated since 2013.

By the time I’m halfway through “You Are My Sunshine,” her face is a mask of dread.

“I’m scared,” she wails in the semi-dark. I want to be compassionate, not resentful, but I’ve been on duty for 14 hours. I’m serving 84 meals a week. There is nowhere to go, no relief from the mental, physical and emotional work of mothering. I’m the tree that’s given everything but my stump. It’s all I have left.

If I refuse to sit here until she falls asleep, she will be awake for hours. But staying feels like a point of no return. If I give her these last dregs of my time and energy, I’m afraid she’ll never go to sleep on her own again. I’ll be trapped here until she goes to college. My fear, as Yoda predicted, leads to anger.

I say things such as, “No one is going to break in and kidnap you,” and, “We are right outside the door.” When I’m really over it, I sometimes ask what exactly she wants me to do. “I can’t go to sleep for you,” I say. “Read a book until you feel tired.” I don’t yell, but I am curt, even though I know her anxiety will spike if I’m upset.

Tonight, I take a deep breath, the kind I tell her to take. I give in.

“I’ll sit here for a few minutes, okay?” I whisper. She nods, closes her eyes, her whole body relaxing.

Watching her chest rise and fall, I think of all the other parents sitting in half-lit rooms across the globe. There is a reason, after all, that the “children’s book for adults,” “Go The F**k To Sleep,” sold more than 3 million copies in 40 languages; experts have estimated that as many as 50 percent of kids have trouble going to sleep at some point in their development. How many of us feel trapped by our children’s bedside, night after night, forced to choose between a miserable, frightened, tired child or a night with no downtime, no privacy and no season four of “High Maintenance”? It doesn’t seem healthy, or fair. But here I am.

My daughter’s refusal to go to sleep began when my father died, a few days shy of his 90th birthday. She was 5. “So, everyone dies, and Grandpa died, and he was your dad, so . . . ” she informed me after the shiva, in her Rainbow Dash PJs. “That means that one day you and Papa . . . ”

She spent that night in our bed, moved to a mattress on our floor, and ended up in her big sister’s room. We read books. We considered souls. We tried bribes. Finally, a good friend with many degrees in child psychology told us to stop talking about death and remind her of her agency over her feelings: What do you do when you are happy? When you are sad? When you are afraid? This, plus a new bed, new sheets and even more stuffed animals, got her back in her own room, four months later.

Is your child having trouble sleeping? Melatonin isn’t the only answer.

Since then, bedtime has been a battleground. Our pediatrician told us that 8 is the age of reason, but that was fake news. Eight is the age of many things — Harry Potter, hair chalk, high volume — but rationality is not among them.

“Fear doesn’t need to be based in logic or probability,” says Nicole Bush, a child clinical psychologist and the director of developmental medicine at the University of California at San Francisco’s pediatrics and psychiatry departments. “When there is a physiological response — an overwhelming feeling, like a racing heart — or a cognitive stream of worries they can’t explain, they turn to a narrative that will explain it. And once they tell themselves that story, it can become the story.”

Pre-pandemic, we talked frequently about my daughter’s fears. We attended a seminar about relieving anxiety in children. We listened and reflected her feelings. We reassured her. We visualized relaxing scenarios and taught her self-calming techniques. Mostly, we tried to keep our cool as we walked her back to bed yet again. Since stay-at-home orders began, her anxiety has reached new heights. It takes hours to get her to bed.

This, too, Bush says, is to be expected: “Kids are getting stress messages from every direction. Some are exposed to media; all of them are watching their parents, friends and family members be stressed because of the pandemic’s effect on their lives. Even if you as a parent aren’t leaking anxious energy, all of their reassuring structures and rituals and routines — schools, child care, friendships, church, whatever — have been ripped out from under them.”

My husband and I taught both our children to fall asleep by themselves; I still believe it’s the best thing for them and for us, physically and emotionally. But an additional, uncomfortable truth has emerged now that we cannot leave the house, cannot leave each other. Sitting by my daughter’s bed to ease her anxiety forces me to do the thing I am worst at, a thing I almost never do: nothing.

Like my late father, like my sleepless daughter, I am always in motion, adrift when inactive. And it is how I deal with my own anxiety: by losing myself in tasks. Sitting in the quiet dark, watching my daughter’s chest rise and fall, is almost intolerable. But so is the alternative. Something has to give.

After only a few nights of waiting by my daughter’s bedside for her to fall asleep, I lost my mellow mojo and foisted the job onto my husband, who is more patient, more present. But he, too, tired of sitting there as the minutes ticked by, or facing the inevitable disruption to our evening and her sister’s sleep. There had to be a better way.

“If you can help your child learn how to feel safe and secure on their own, that is the best-case scenario,” says Lauren Asarnow, a clinical psychologist and specialist in pediatric behavioral sleep medicine at UCSF. “Parents have great intuitions when it comes to their kids. Listen to yourselves, listen to your children, and work together to come up with creative solutions on how to feel safe.”

We called a family meeting. Our talking piece was a rock with a Sharpie-drawn face named Mr. Potato. You could only talk if you had Mr. Potato. One by one, we shared how my daughter’s fear of going to sleep was affecting us. And then we turned to strategies. “What else can we do?” we asked her. “How can we help you go to sleep?”

What she needed, she said, was a reminder of all the things she ought to do and say to herself to feel calm enough to sleep. “Like, a sign on the wall?” we asked. Yes. Her eyes lit up. A biiiiig sign.

We leaped into action — my specialty. A giant roll of paper unfurled on the living room floor. All four of us got to work, a frenzy of pass the blue and move your foot and you do “safe.” When we were done, we had a poster as big as her bed. While I read to her, her father and sister attached it to her ceiling.

Four nights in, it’s working. I see my daughter scanning the words while I’m singing her song, and, once I leave her room, I imagine her staring up at them, reminding herself of what she needs to know to allow sleep to find her: that life goes on; that she is loved; and that we will meet her where she is, as best we can, without giving up ourselves.

I am fine.

We are safe.

My sister is right next to me.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Clear your mind.

Mama and Papa are right out there.

I am strong.

I am in control.

Everything will be okay.

Setting kids up for sleep success

Getting kids to go to bed doesn’t require a PhD — but some inside knowledge helps. I spoke with Asarnow of UCSF about kids and sleep issues. Of course, it’s always best to check with your pediatrician first to make sure the sleep issues aren’t caused by an underlying medical issue. Asarnow and I chatted about a range of kid-related sleep problems.

For example, parents may be wondering if they should sleep with anxious kids. “It depends,” Asarnow says. “Maintaining the usual schedule and expectations as much as possible is always ideal in that it makes children feel that they know what to expect. Sometimes, well-intentioned parents want to allow their children extra leeway with rules or expectations in challenging times.” But, she says, it’s important to not be so rigid with rules that you overlook a child’s real need to feel safe and secure, particularly now.

I also asked her about the safety of using melatonin to help kids sleep.

“It can help for one-off uses on tough nights, but should not be used habitually unless doctor-recommended. It is often recommended for kids with some developmental differences,” she says. “It’s great to avoid the crutch. As kids reach puberty, it stops working for sleep onset and can exacerbate delayed bedtime preference for teens. Also, there is very little/no data on long-term use in kids. Animal data suggests there may be effects on endocrine functioning as well.”

Here’s a roundup of tips from Asarnow and Bush, also with UCSF, on what works in setting kids up for sleep success.

●Keep routines routine. Knowing what to expect — and what’s expected of them — helps kids stay on track. When nothing is the way it used to be, changing up the bedtime routine only adds more stress.

●Label and validate their feelings. Let your kids know that it’s okay to feel worried or sad, and that everything is indeed different than it used to be. Sit with them for a minute, validate their experience, but then shift the focus to all the things they can do to help themselves feel better.

●Tell a different story. Cognitive reframing is the process of taking a negative thought and shifting it toward something adaptive. Instead of “I’m all alone,” remind your child to think “Mom is just down the hall.” Instead of “Something bad might happen,” have them think “I’m safe.”

●Build skills. Deep, steady breathing and mini-mediations help calm the sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. the body’s fight-or-flight response to fear. There are numerous apps available for kids that help them learn and practice self-regulation. Bonus: They work for parents, too.

●Move. Exercise can be challenging while stuck at home, especially in dense urban environments, but it is key to feeling tired enough to fall asleep. It also promotes the production of chemicals that support positive mood and immune function. (Avoid it just before bedtime, when it can be activating.)

●Focus on the positive. Spend a couple of minutes before bedtime talking about the good things, small and large, that happened during the day — for both of you.

●Reinforce results. Praise even the smallest progress and use whatever reward your child will respond to if they stay in bed until morning.

●Go easy on them — and on yourself. These are tough times. There’s no magic bullet and no one-size-fits-all solution. Learning to self-soothe and regulate emotions takes time and practice, even for grown-ups. Try some strategies, be patient with your child and be kind to yourself. If nothing works, don’t be shy about seeking professional help.

Amy Brill is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @amy_brill.