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Why Kids with Developmental Trauma Do or Don't Sleep at All the Wrong Times

Discover why kids with developmental trauma have trouble sleeping. Learn about the impact of trauma on sleep and consider expert advice.

Sleep is on the minds of many people as daylight savings approaches. But for many of us parenting children with developmental trauma, a lack of sleep is a constant concern no matter the time of year. Sleep was an issue from the first night our son entered our home at age 9, long before he received the reactive attachment disorder/developmental trauma disorder diagnosis at 14.

At first, our son just wouldn’t accept bedtime. He’d do anything to prolong it, begging for more reading aloud, more trips to the bathroom, a cup of water, or a little more TV to “help him fall asleep.” If all else failed, he’d literally just get up out of bed and follow me around talking or arguing.

I hadn’t planned on using threats, point charts or punishments, but from the very beginning, I needed to get this kid to stay in his room so I could unwind and get some sleep myself. So within that first week, I was saying things like ‘You will not get to do X if you don’t follow your bedtime,’ or ‘You will get X as a reward if you go to bed.’ That seemed to work. But little did I know that the minute I went to bed, he got up and had a great time. He was skilled, and it took months before I caught on to the fact that he was eating all the sweets, stealing money and going through every nook and cranny of our house while the rest of us slept.

As his issues with this and many other parts of life became more apparent, I joined countless adoptive parenting groups online. It was easy to see that sleep issues were common in children with developmental trauma disorder.

“It’s a thing — sleep as a control mechanism and chaos maker: sleeping in class, through therapy, and not waking up as an act of defiance,” comments one fellow parent. “And there is the NOT sleeping to do whatever in the night.”

Another parent says: “Lots of sleep issues — hoarding and wandering at night, sleeping in various odd places in the house. We’ve tried about everything: meds, psychologists, using different scents/lotions for calming, etc.”

Some kids have trouble getting to sleep, while others have issues staying asleep or with both.

“Getting to sleep wasn’t the problem; it was staying asleep,” says one parent. “Getting up at 1:30/2:00 in the morning and causing chaos was the norm. Might fall asleep again after a few hours only to wake at 5:00 and start again. I had to be up with him when he was young to prevent him from harming others. He turned on our gas stove too many times in the night before I could corral him. He put pillows over his siblings’ heads and held them down. Many problems and years of my staying up most nights.”

Another parent adds: “He’s definitely a light sleeper and likes to leave his door open to hear what's going on.” Our son also had this hypervigilance and would listen to conversations through his heater vent. The parent continues: “He (used nighttime for) screentime or would wander around. We got a lock box for electronics. Also, because of him we have cameras everywhere too now.”

Causes Behind Sleep Problems for Those with Developmental Trauma Disorder

Those of us raising children with developmental trauma disorder know our children have experienced several traumatic events over months or years. This childhood trauma impacts many aspects of their life from school to relationships to sleep. According to the article “Sleep problems in children and adolescents following traumatic life events” which was published in the World Journal of Psychology, “Adverse effects of childhood trauma on sleep have been found immediately as well as years after trauma and can still be demonstrated in adulthood.”

The Sleep Foundation reports that trauma impacts the cycles of sleep: “Trauma can affect sleep architecture, which means that it can change how the body moves through sleep cycles and stages. Experts are working to understand the ways trauma alters sleep architecture, but research suggests that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep appears to be the stage most affected. REM sleep is important for storing memories and processing emotions, and dreams during REM sleep tend to be more fantastical and bizarre.”

Good sleep after a traumatic event can be very healing, but many of our children have been in the cycle of poor sleep for years. Conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder can cause distressing dreams and nightmares. When our children are over-stimulated, as they often are, their brains are flooded with neurochemicals that serve to keep them awake, such as epinephrine and adrenaline. Our children's trauma causes them to feel unsafe. Their bodies and minds are in a constant state of hypervigilance, as some of the examples above note. They feel they must stay up to know what's going on and, unconsciously, keep themselves safe. Research in recent years has shown how important sleep is to all aspects of health. However simply knowing this doesn't do anything to change the cycle of insomnia and poor sleep.

Sleep Solutions for Those with Developmental Trauma Disorder

In the long term, we hope our children will receive and welcome the help they need to heal from their trauma. But, in the short and long term, our children will likely need a variety of help to get their sleep regulated. For our son, we started off trying all the natural and least invasive options: Exercise during the day, a regular time to go to bed and wake up, essential oils in a diffuser, bedtime guided meditations or sleep music, a dark room and white noise, no caffeine, no screen time an hour before bed (I would read to him before sleep and he could read to himself or color) etc. However, none of these efforts made much of a difference.

Our children's trauma causes them to feel unsafe. Their bodies and minds are in a constant state of hypervigilance, as some of the examples above note. They feel they must stay up to know what's going on and, unconsciously, keep themselves safe.

I talked to his doctor about melatonin, and we tried that. Melatonin does help for some people although there are potential side effects and causes for concern. For some, it will help with getting to sleep but not for staying to sleep or will lose its effectiveness over time. For our son, it helped a little but not for long.

Soon we moved on to a variety of prescriptions, which of course come with their own side effects. We also continued to seek out therapies and other modalities of healing. I myself struggle with insomnia and have for many years. I have taken sleep hygiene classes and tried a variety of natural and prescription sleep aids. Every few months I have to make adjustments. Many of the things I myself have tried and that we tried with our son are indeed things the experts recommend. The Sleep Foundation suggests maintaining a regular sleep schedule, engaging in relaxing activities that calm the mind and body before bed, sleeping in a place that feels safe, and not forcing sleep. Not forcing sleep means that if you are tossing and turning for more than 20 minutes, you get out of bed and do a relaxing activity instead, such as a warm bath, reading or drawing. Because our children often get into trouble when we are not supervising them, this can present challenges. Depending on the child's age and ability to follow boundaries, some can be given a sleep basket of acceptable activities or a list of activities they can engage in quietly in their room if they are unable to sleep.

Because sleep is likely to be a challenging issue for our children, it's best to loop in their therapist, psychiatrist, and pediatrician. Like most struggles with developmental trauma, working on healing is the core solution. But that is not usually easy. By using trial and error and professional support, hopefully you can find some short-term sleep solutions in the interim to secure rest for everyone, including you, in the home.

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My son did all of those things mentioned and no one believed me. I would be told that he went right to sleep. OK. But did you hear him up half the night causing chaos? Years of the problems and danger in the night. Nothing worked to keep him asleep all night. The only solution was to stay up all night myself to keep him and his siblings safe. He's been in many out of home placements and this always becomes an issue.

His brother did this as well but I was usually able to put a movie on and he'd watch that while I napped on the couch next to him. Now 16, he still gets up at some…

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