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Lessons from the front line of child psychology
By Dr Helen Andrews, Clinical Psychologist
It’s curious how I often get a cluster of families coming to my clinic at about the same time who are experiencing similar difficulties. In the last couple of months I have seen several parents who have had a new baby and are struggling with how this affects their older child – particularly in relation to sleep issues. All have found that bedtime settling routines have become much longer and at times very demanding. At the point of the parent leaving the room, some children have become very teary and clingy, others very cross and destructive.
Typically in situations like these, the older child is displaying anxiety around the changes that come along with a new baby. Not only do they have a new person to get to know and incorporate into their family, but there are changes in their parents too. Both parents are likely to be tired and a little more on edge than usual, whilst they adjust to having more demands placed on them, and they will naturally have less time for their older child than before.
So it is perhaps not surprising that many children struggle at bedtime - but what should parents do?
I advise parents to think about the daytime before we look at bedtimes. It’s not that children want our attention, it’s that they need it. I ask parents to establish a regular time each day when they sit and play with their child for ten minutes. There should be no interruptions, ideally when baby is asleep. This reassures the child that they are still there for them. If children know they are going to get this time every day, they feel less anxious at other times and are less likely to feel insecure. I also recommend involving the child in helping to look after the baby wherever possible, but in a fun way, not with responsibilities.
Once the child is reassured that their parents are still available to them, and they accept the baby into the family, then we can think about bedtimes. I don’t mind whether parents want a family bed or the child in their own room; a 15-minute bedtime routine or a 90-minute routine. What I want is for the parent to feel happy and confident with their choice. I suggest a clear ‘getting ready for bed’ routine, a chat, a story, a kiss and ‘goodnight’. The expectation is then that the child stays in their room. If they leave, then they should be calmly and silently taken back – maybe many times initially. Usually just a few days of this is sufficient for them to get the message. As difficult as it can be, it is really important to be consistent.
Hopefully the result is a happy, rested child, secure in their relationship with all of their family members, but if anyone needs extra support with issues like this, they can speak to their GP, health visitor, children’s centre or a specialist.
Dr Helen Andrews is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development. Family Matters supports prospective parents through the final stages of pregnancy, new parents struggling with the challenges of infancy and toddlerhood and more experienced parents too. Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or visit www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk