The Bedtime Narrative for Kids Who Struggle with Sleep Anxiety

Throughout the years, I’ve had a number of requests for support from adoptive parents who are struggling with their child’s sleep anxiety. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario:

“They refuse to let me leave the room, I have to lie in bed with them until they finally fall asleep.”

“They wake up constantly during the night and I have to be right next to them or they’ll panic.”

“Every time they wake up they come into my room and spend the rest of the night in my bed.”

“They’ve been sleeping in my bed all night, every night.”

I can relate to the exhaustion — you try to be empathetic to your child’s anxiety and comfort them, you feel guilty leaving them in fear as you set boundaries, you’re desperate for a good night of sleep, you resent them for denying your attempts to create a healthy routine . . . you are on the brink of losing your sanity. I was there. Every night for the first two and a half years after my child arrived home, putting them to sleep was a three-hour battle that left us all in tears, and then they woke like an infant every hour or two needing us to go through the charade all over again. We tried everything we could think of to show them that we would never leave them, that they were safe, and that they could handle falling and staying asleep in their bed directly across the hall from our own. Nothing seemed to work.

Now, you would think that being a trauma-trained psychologist who specializes in working with children would have its advantages as a parent. And it definitely did . . . once I had a brief, lucid-enough moment to remember that I even had the skills to support my child amidst the zombie-like exhaustion! 

First, I had to truly consider the root of the issue: Valid fear. For many adoptees, especially those who are born internationally, the caregiver may have “disappeared” after they went to sleep, never to be seen again. By separating during sleep to avoid the tears, confusion, or terror of a formal goodbye, the caregiver may have intended to be compassionate. However, the child experiences this as abandonment, and tears, confusion, or terror are just delayed until they wake up alone or in the presence of strangers. For kids who were adopted at an older age and remember being removed from the care of their first parents, sleep may not have always felt like a safe process. They might recall falling asleep or waking up in unfamiliar places, to arguments or violence, to caregivers struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, or to adults touching them inappropriately or harmfully. When we begin to have empathy for the ways that not sleeping is actually a remarkably adaptive and self-protective coping strategy, we can begin to accept that the trauma is deeper than any bedtime routine could ever hope to reach. 

So what’s the alternative? We need to respond to those implicit memories, which I often refer to as “baby brain” memories with my adoptee clients. I emphasize that our “baby brain” remembers these scary or difficult incidents associated with sleep, and once our brain and body have experienced something, our “baby brain” is always anticipating the possibility that it could happen again. These memories are stored in sensory and emotional ways in the body, so we don’t always have a narrative in our heads to accompany them. This means that we have no verbal connection with the implicit memories, so they can’t necessarily be resolved with only words of reassurance. The solution may require the incorporation of body healing in order for our brain to rebuild a sense of safety around sleep.

I decided to incorporate EMDR resourcing techniques, which involved tapping on my child’s shoulders to encourage bilateral stimulation in their brain (learn more about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I created a new narrative about sleep to accompany the bilateral stimulation in order to help them begin to feel a deeper sense of safety within their body. I included the following elements in my narrative:

  • The emotions that arise with the sleep anxiety
  • The body cues that accompany the sleep anxiety
  • The reminder of the dependable presence of safe caregivers throughout the night
  • The emphasis on permission and power to take control over your body’s anxiety
  • The feelings that will accompany waking from a successful night of sleep
  • The joy and reassurance of the caregiver-child reconnection in the morning

Within a few days, my kiddo was falling asleep on their own in minutes and sleeping in their own bed the entire night. It’s now been years since we created what my kiddo calls “The Bedtime Song,” and they’ve been sleeping like a champ ever since! 

I’ve shared this amazing technique with many of the families I’ve worked with over the last decade, and I’ve decided it’s time to share it with all young adoptees and their caregivers. In “Casey Conquers Bedtime,” the second book in my “Adoptees Like Me” series for elementary readers, kids can connect to another adoptee and see the bedtime scenario come to life through Casey’s narration and the illustrations:

Casey is an adoptee who doesn’t like bedtime. His parents introduce him to Dr. Chaitra, a transracial adoptee just like Casey, who explains how going to sleep and even waking up can bring up scary feelings for adopted kids. She helps Casey think about bedtime differently and combines a special story with his love of musical instruments to teach his brain and body that sleep is safe. This story shares specific narratives and tools that you can use with your own child, both in the book and the free printable parent resource guide. Support your child as they learn to conquer bedtime by reading Casey’s story, and learn how you can bring four more amazing adoptee stories to life!

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.