Our Daughter has such a difficult time sleeping at night. She used to physically fight for her life when bedtime came (you can read about it here.) Bedtime triggered her fight/flight response because she experienced trauma at this time in her biological home. Luckily we have the very best trauma therapists to work with us and out children with therapeutic strategies. These are some of the best strategies to calm our daughter’s fear response at night. She needs to feel safe in order to rest.
- Comforting Smells: I like to use lavender scented baby lotion to give her arms a deep-pressure massage before bed if she needs it. She will also put a drop of essential oil onto a tissue and rub it together. Then she holds it to her face and breathes in slowly. Smells activate the brain’s Amygdala, which triggers memories from the hippocampus and can activate an emotional response. The mom-massage is a good smell, thus triggering feelings of love and safety. I also rub a bit of my hair conditioner in her hair before bed sometimes.
- Comforting Sounds: We have a noise machine for both of our children. They can choose to listen to white noise, rain sounds, a forest, the ocean, a brook, etc. They use these sounds as a coping skill when they need to calm down throughout the day. The sounds also give them a sense that they are not alone in a scary place.
- Soothing Light: Our children have always needed a night light to sleep. Complete darkness means they can’t see if any danger is approaching. Although there isn’t a real threat inside our home, our children have an overactive fight/flight response. In order to calm this fear we provide creative nightlights. Our daughter had one that was activated whenever a the light was turned off. We also have a mushroom nightlight probably intended for infants. It projects a series of flowers and stars onto the ceiling with slowly changing colors and designs. This is mesmerizing to look at and soothing for her to watch. Our son has a moon-light that comes with a remote control. He can switch the phases of the moon depending on his mood. A quarter moon if he feels safe, a full moon if he is feeling afraid, and a rotating phase moon to look at if he can’t sleep.
- Soothing Taste: Fruits and vegetables are always available for our children in the house. Our kids choose an apple or a clementine (Yuck! After brushing teeth?) before bed. Sometimes our daughter will choose to eat a lemon. I can’t explain that one! Tasting food before bed helps to ease the constant fear that there won’t be enough food and they will starve. This is another leftover fear from their bio-home.
- Calming touch: We have given our children physical objects that they can hold throughout the night in order to help them. One of these is a giant stuffed dog named “Mr. Luke” that my daughter has slept with since she got home. It always wears one of daddy’s dirty shirts (preferably from that day) so that she can hold it and feel like daddy is there, protecting her. We also bought Mary a large body pillow and our family wrote positive messages all over it. We used fabric markers but permanent markers might have been just as good. Then we wiped my deodorant all over it and dressed it in my dirty shirt from that day. This way Mary can feel like she is sleeping between mommy and daddy.
- ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE: Every night we keep the same schedule so that our children know exactly what is going to happen. This gives them a sense of control over a world that was previously chaotic and unpredictable. Their bedtimes remain the same, even on weekends (with maybe a 30 minute difference.) While one child showers, the other child gets to choose an activity with mom or dad, completely led by them. Every night I say the same goodnight. I rub their backs, slowly counting down from 10. Then I touch their faces in the same pattern and say the words, “I love you forever, no matter what, and I am so glad your home!” Then we both make a “pop!” sound with our lips and hug each other.
At the end of the day, I wish I could tell you that everything is fine and our daughter has no trouble whatsoever sleeping with these strategies in place. Unfortunately, That simply isn’t true in our case. Ever since she’s come home from an inpatient stay, she’s been seeing “monsters” and hearing “talking things” downstairs. If I had a completely healthy back, I might sleep downstairs with her for a night to show her it’s OK. But I can’t. So we’ve moved the bedroll upstairs to the hallway right outside our bedroom. This way she knows mommy and daddy are close. My fingers are crossed that this stage won’t last long. Either way? She’s our girl and we will do whatever it takes to make her feel safe at night!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved