Why kids are struggling to sleep during the coronavirus crisis — and what parents can do

·10 min read
Self-isolating at home has meant disrupted routines — and sleep — for some children. (Photo: Getty Images stock)
Self-isolating at home has meant disrupted routines — and sleep — for some children. (Photo: Getty Images stock)

Broken sleep, insomnia, restlessness, wild dreams... The coronavirus pandemic has caused sleepless nights for many people, for whom anxiety over health and finances, not to mention the chaos of uprooted schedules, has thwarted the possibility of a good night’s rest. And it’s not just adults who are being kept up all night; from bedwetting, to late-night wake-ups, to crawling into their parents’ beds, children of all ages seem to be struggling to settle as well.

Dana, mother to a 18-month-old son, tells Yahoo Life that, since her family began quarantining, the boy’s “sleep schedule has taken a brutal hit — and so has my sanity.” While children that age are prone to sleep regressions, the first-time mom says being cooped up at home all day has exacerbated the onslaught of tantrums, nap refusals and repeat wakings during the night.

“While I’ve managed to work at home with a toddler climbing all over me — wanting to breastfeed whenever he’s distressed, which feels like every hour — and operating off of four to five hours of sleep, I’m not sure how much longer either of us can function at this rate,” the Pennsylvania-based mom says. “Being confined to home with very limited walks and 30-minute long breaks in our back deck area, I’ve noticed that my bubbly and bright little boy is really struggling with not going to school, seeing his friends or teachers or enjoying his usual weekend hangs at the public library or museum. His ‘routine’ is nonexistent and so poor sleep has led to many meltdowns and more on-demand nursing then I can physically handle.”

Becca Campbell, owner of Little Z’’s Sleep Consulting and a Virginia-based certified sleep specialist for newborns up to preschool-aged children, says complaints like Dana’s are flooding in from clients who are seeing their own small children’s sleep habits go haywire while in isolation.

“There really has been an uptick in sleep troubles,” says Campbell, whose requests for sleep training support have “gone through the roof” in recent weeks as desperate, sleep-deprived parents seek help. “There’s nothing more that would up your anxiety — you’re already stressed out, you can’t leave your house, you’ve got to stay home, we’re all trying to do our best, but then your kid is screaming for 90 minutes in the middle of the day. And obviously, everything just piles on you as a caretaker.”

In the case of young children, she attributes much of this to a lack of stimulation, both physically and mentally, as daycares and schools close and parents juggle their own work with at-home childcare, leaning on screen time out of necessity.

“Kids are not getting the activity and energy level out like they were before,” she tells Yahoo Life. “They’re not going to daycare and being stimulated; they’re not going to school and being stimulated like they were before. And so now we’re finding, a lot of my toddlers ... are not getting outside as much. They’re not getting their physical needs met, and so they’re fighting their naps, which is so frustrating.”

Without exercise to help wear them down, some kids are powering through to the evening — when parents are “straight-up spent” and struggling to keep up their firm bedtime rituals. As a mom of two, Campbell says she herself understands the need to take a break, joking, “To be honest, even in my family, I’m like, ‘I’ve been with you all day! I’m done!’” But rushing through those tried-and-true routines, such as a bath or one-on-one playtime, in the hopes that a child will just “go to sleep” can often fall short.

“It’s kind of a combination of their energies not being met, they’re not getting as stimulated, but then, we’re tired, we’re done, we’ve been on deck, working from home, being a mom, all the things, for 24 hours a day, and now we’re done and bedtime comes. And then we do see the kiddos waking up in the middle of the night ... or they’re getting restless sleep because they’re really not tired enough, and it does all start to collide into one wonderful, beautiful mess.”

Sleep consultant Becca Campbell says some toddlers are having poor sleep because they're not getting enough stimulation during the day. (Photo: Getty Images stock)
Sleep consultant Becca Campbell says some toddlers are having poor sleep because they're not getting enough stimulation during the day. (Photo: Getty Images stock)

So, what can parents do to turn things around? Campbell recommends taking advantage of sunny spring weather and going outside after dinner, noting that the setting sun can signal to children that bedtime is near. Switching off screens for the entire family for at least the hour leading up to bedtime is also beneficial.

While some parents might be hesitant to follow through on major nap transitions linked to a child’s age — such as going from two naps a day to just one — during this uncertain time, Campbell says it’s important to do so if the baby or toddler seems ready, as it’s part of their natural sleep development. That may take a few weeks of adjustment, but the good news is that more minor, gradual changes — such as moving a toddler’s nap 30 minutes later so it doesn’t conflict with Mommy’s daily work meeting, or shifting waking hours from 8 to 8 versus 7 to 7 — can be less disruptive, especially if they’re eased into.

When it comes to older kids, the shift from rigid schedules and commutes to homeschooling can also prompt parents to become more lax about bedtime and wake-up calls. Vanessa Vance, an Austin-based nurse and sleep consultant who runs Parent Heroes, tells Yahoo Life that letting kids slip into “vacation mode” — staying up late, sleeping in — can have a negative impact on sleep habits. While Vance allows for the occasional exception (keeping a firm schedule 80 percent of the time, with flexibility for the remaining 20 percent), she recommends that parents follow American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines to make sure their kids are getting the adequate amount of sleep for their age, and not letting bedtimes run amok too frequently. By reinforcing “gentle boundaries” in terms of a set bedtime, parents can create consistency, trigger better sleep built around prime melatonin releases, and avoid getting resistance from kids looking to call the shots.

“If we choose as parents to soften the bedtime, we’re going to have them fall asleep after that melatonin release, and it’s going to be harder for them to fall asleep,” she says.

Dr. Lisa Barber, a pediatric pulmonology specialist for Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, agrees. In her work, Barber says she’s observed adolescents and teens experiencing “a shift in the natural sleep-wake rhythm toward being a night owl” thanks to the disrupted routines caused by quarantining.

A lack of structure is prompting some adolescents to stay up late and sleep through the morning. (Photo: Getty Images stock)
A lack of structure is prompting some adolescents to stay up late and sleep through the morning. (Photo: Getty Images stock)

“Without a strict schedule and a strict wake time, the body’s natural tendency is to stay up later and sleep later,” she tells Yahoo Life. “The older the child is, the more often I’ll see that. ... They have this pattern of staying up late, sleeping later in the day — sometimes a completely flip-flopped schedule where they’re awake at night and they’re sleeping during the day — because they no longer have the school structure imposed upon them.”

The “primary therapy” for that haphazard schedule, she says, is to reinstate some of the old practices, by “enforcing structure, wherein maybe you didn’t need any before; having a fixed wake time in the morning; [and] early outdoor sun exposure really helps in resetting the rhythm.”

And for parents with kids at home all day, creating a schedule with certain fixed activities throughout the day (such as a regular lunchtime or exercise block) can “strengthen the association with daytime wakefulness and help you feel sleepier at a more reasonable time at night.”

Barber says she’s also seen “the effects of stress and anxiety on sleep” during this time — including insomnia, needing new parental associations to soothe them to sleep (such as lying down with Mom or Dad) or experiencing new fears. This behavior is common when children have experienced a significant life upheaval — like a stay-at-home order.

‘Even if the child isn’t expressing to you that staying at home and not being at school is stressful or negative for them, this is such a major life change that sometimes one of the first ways that it manifests is by disrupting sleep,” she explains.

To combat this, she recommends having a reliable structure in place to help children “feel more secure.” Having a “meaningful conversation” with children who are anxious or worried about the coronavirus news coverage they’re seeing can also be reassuring. But she advises parents to resist the temptation to indulge their child by regularly allowing them to crawl into their bed, which they may expect long after life returns to normal.

“Provide love and reassurance, but try to avoid new sleep associations like co-sleeping if you weren’t doing that before, because there is a risk in a sense of creating new, non-sustainable sleep associations,” she says, adding that soothing a child verbally can address the underlying anxieties without reinventing their bedtime routine. Adding a comfort item like a security blanket, soft nightlight, “lovey” or stuffed animal is another option, as is rearranging the child’s bedroom to make it feel more fresh, welcoming and free of negative associations.

Another thing parents can keep an eye out for is “limit-setting,” wherein children make repeat “curtain calls” to stall their bedtime. They may ask for another drink of water, or say they have a tummy ache, or make some other complaint simply to delay hitting the pillow. Parents should of course assess whether or not a complaint or ache is legitimate, but otherwise be firm about getting back to bed.

And as for bedwetting, it’s not uncommon for it to surface due to stress — but if it continues for three months or more, she says, it’s best to consult a doctor. Daytime stress, she notes, can also “increase the frequency” of sleep disruptors like sleep terrors. That’s all the more reason for parents to have an honest, reassuring conversation about the headlines with kids who are old enough to process it, and to stay calm in their presence.

“Kids are our mirrors,” Barber says. “If we are showing a lot of fear and anxiety, they see it.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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