Kids go through periods where sleep is hard to come by from time to time. At times like this it can really be a struggle to sleep. Whether it is falling asleep or staying asleep that is the problem it can be especially troublesome when children can't get to sleep (or get back to sleep) and don't have alternatives that won't wake the whole family.
Prevention:Even during the primary or elementary school years, it is a good idea to use a bed-time routine most of the time (in fact, it is really what is best for us adults too). Routine helps your child's brain start shutting down and send signals to the body that is time to chill out and get ready for sleeping. You do not need to stick to exactly the same routine you used when your child was two, but a routine that includes hygienic care (such as brushing teeth) followed by some sort of calming ritual, like bed-time stories or independent reading is a typical way to go.
Screen time seems to reduce the ability of the brain to move into sleep so I've heard it suggested that no computer, video or TV for at least half an hour before attempting sleep is a good plan. Along the same lines, foods and drinks (other than water) aren't a great idea in the hour leading up to bed as they too, can reduce the likelihood of a quick and easy transition into the Land of Nod.
Make sure your child has a "nest." Bed should be clean and comfortable, the right temperature for your child, and calm. If your child likes soft music playing and it helps - go for it, if your child is the type that needs silence in order to fall asleep - do your best to give him or her that too.
Have a bed-time that you stick to pretty religiously most of the time. When kids (and adults) go to bed at the same time night after night, the brain is better able to predict when you should start to feel sleepy. It helps to set and keep that internal clock set and ticking in a healthful way.
A Brief Reassurance:
Sometimes, there can be a shift in hormones (they aren't only for adolescence), a growth spurt, shifting adult teeth as they get ready to push baby teeth out of the way, and even subtle changes in stress level not easily detected even by the child can cause temporary bouts of insomnia. A growth spurt in learning that causes a child's brain to be over-stimulated can also cause problems. It makes it hard for kids to down-shift at night (routine helps with this). You'll both need to know sleep is elusive and there isn't a lot that can be done about it at times. When this happens, making sure your child is at least getting good hearty and healthy meals and a little quiet time (squeezed in right after school perhaps?) can help keep moods good and exhaustion at bay.
Less sleep isn't necessarily a problem for kids during certain periods of growth and often these short periods of insomnia will pass - depending on the route cause (which none of you may ever know). If your child is losing enough sleep that he or she is suffering fatigue because of the loss of sleep it can sometimes help to encourage a short afternoon nap. Something in the way of 20-40 minutes once or twice, much longer or for multiple days in a row and you are setting everyone up for another night of sleeplessness (unless we are speaking about someone under the age of about four or five).
Intervention:Lets say you have a son that can't sleep and is waking others up during the night when he starts playing and making noise. Here is a series of steps you might try in order to engage the child in problem solving with you. The advantage of involving the child in finding solutions is that he might be able to give insight into what is keeping him awake, that he learns about the problem solving process through your modeling and his practice during the process, and when kids are engaged in finding solutions for problems, they are more likely to be invested in making the solution work.
- Ask him what he thinks is up with the not sleeping thing when it is daylight and just you can talk. Do this when you have time to sit and listen. He very likely doesn't really know what is up and is playing at night because he is bored since he can't sleep. Allow him some time to think through things. You may need to sit silently waiting for answers to questions like, "why do you think you aren't able to sleep."
- Don't take him at his word when he offers up a first answer - it is very likely it is a red herring. He wants to please you by giving you an answer, but he doesn't really know how to do that so he is giving you the first answer that comes to mind. Respond with "hmm. That's interesting. Anything else?" or some other very open-ended question. Give him some time again - maybe there really isn't anything else, but give him some time. If he says "I don't know" and still doesn't know after thinking about for a minute or two, either he really doesn't know, or there is something bothering him but he's not ready to tell you. Don't push.
- Once he offers up a more thought out answer (or you are convinced he really doesn't have an additional one), ask him what he thinks might help him sleep more. Again, you might need to give him some time. As you allow this time for thought and are quietly listening, if there is something he is anxious about, you are demonstrating that you aren't mad and just want to help and building trust. He will come around.
- Point out that his current way of dealing with being awake at night is preventing everyone else from getting sleep and how unfair that is. State this using an "I" such as, "I'm worried none of you are getting enough sleep, but it is especially unfair to your brothers who could be." Then follow your statement with what you would like without giving an answer, "Is there a way you could do something that would be calm and more likely to help you get back to sleep sooner as well as allow your brothers to continue to sleep even though you are awake?" Perhaps he would like a book light and some books to read. Perhaps he could have some headphones and some calming music to listen to. Who knows what he'll offer up. Listen to it.
- Leave the conversation not having made any decisions. "Lets continue to think about this and brainstorm and then we'll talk about it again same time tomorrow and make some decisions about what to do." He might think of something else while you are all "away from it" to add to the conversation because he will feel less pressure when not engaged in the conversation in the moment. You can use the time to consider options he brought up and options you've considered and what you think is a realistic solution and what won't work.
- When you meet again, let him speak first. After you've heard anything else he has to add propose your plan - that hopefully uses elements of what he has said. Put the plan into action and see if it helps. Give the plan at least a week. If it isn't working, revisit and start again.
As long as he isn't keeping the rest of the house up, a calm quiet activity might actually help him get back to sleep faster because it will engage his mind long enough to distract it from the fact that he should be sleeping. With Alice, we have a snooze button set to 30 minutes. She can push it and some lullabies will play for 30 minutes. If she still isn't asleep when the music turns off again, she can read in bed for another 30 before trying for sleep again. Of course you'll want to work out options that are best suited to your child and home. If you don't have a self-reader, audio books might work (but if there is a sibling in the same bedroom, this could also pose a problem). Whatever you choose, your child's options should be quiet and not bother others, be soothing and the kind that are likely to allow his brain to calm down and let him again too.
Punishments and Consequences:
Punishing a child for not sleeping, is likely to leave him in a lose-lose situation where he is stressed out because he knows he is supposed to be sleeping but can't and is bored out of his mind because it is dark and he is supposed to be quiet but he is wide awake and can't do anything about it. For this reason, punishing a kid because he or she can't sleep is counter-productive. However, if a child is consistently waking up the whole household in the middle of the night, you do have a second problem to address beyond the one child's sleeping challenges.
In the case that you have a plan set up, your child knows and understands the plan (and was even a part in devising it) and your child is still waking every one else you may need to resort to consequences. Perhaps he misses out on something cool to do some chores that other members of the house would normally do to allow his family members to "catch up on sleep" that has been missed because of his loudness. Whatever you decide to do in this regard, I suggest making sure it is purely a consequence for having awaken every one else, and not for not sleeping.