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Half of ‘Big Bears’ have experienced sleep disturbances

Once, as I was visiting a children’s shelter, I witnessed a two-year-old girl being taken to her afternoon nap. The teacher picked the girl up and took her to another room and was back in a minute. I was amazed how quickly it happened, as just a minute had gone by and most of the time was taken by the teacher ascending and descending the stairs.

When I asked whether children really fell asleep so quickly on their own, the teacher proudly replied that that was just the case – she would put a child in the bed and they would all fall asleep on their own as, there being 6–8 children of different ages in a family, it would be impossible to sit by the bedside of each and every child.

Time to caress the soul of a child

I thought about my nights at home where it takes an hour or more to put my three daughters to sleep, so that everybody is washed and in their pyjamas, the bedtime stories have been read and the events of the day and plans for tomorrow discussed, and everybody has been kissed and hugged. Only then may the Sandman come and complete a little person’s day with a revitalising trip to the land of dreams. We do not have the skill and effectiveness of that teacher at our home. At the same time, I ask myself – is that something we need? From the earliest days of their childhood, children in foster care often have a really greaaaat need for love and closeness, warmth, understanding and togetherness, as well as a need to be heard. And this is exactly what every child needs in order to develop and grow secure attachments, so that in the future they would be able to create and maintain close relationships and build their own family differently than their biological parents were capable of.

It seemed to me that, for the teacher in this story, the “effectiveness” of putting a child to bed was primary, as it meant that her work was done well and a child does rest and grow while asleep. However, a child needs a lot of closeness to develop safely and age-appropriately. It is hard to believe that a teacher can deliver this to everyone during her long days, as she needs to support and manage between five and eight children and also take care of chores and housekeeping for a big family. Where would she find time to nurture the soul of a child? But if this need is not nurtured even before sleep comes, then what is a child deprived of and what consequences may it have?

We are capable of creating a nice ‘facade’ for children living in institutions – often both bystanders and teachers themselves say that the children in foster care in the new family houses are living in better conditions than children in many conventional families. In these new houses we make sure that the living rooms of children without parental care have lighting and temperature conforming to standards; we prepare food according to prescribed nutritional values, etc. But it seems to me that often this is where it ends – no consideration is given to the fact that a child needs closeness and time spent together to grow into a normal adult – and all this under the umbrella of unconditional love.

Sleep disturbances are a health risk

Today’s pace of life is fast, offering numerous opportunities and challenges to children and adults alike. Less thought is given to the fact that a person needs rest and sleep to remain adequately active. At the same time, an increasing number of people are suffering from various types of sleep disturbances. Lack of sleep and related fatigue are not only a frequent cause of traffic and work accidents, but damage the balance of the body as a whole and are conducive to many modern widely spread health problems, such as: excessive weight, diabetes, cardiac ischemia, high blood pressure. Scientists consider sleep disturbances and lack of sleep a new, increasingly spreading health risk. According to specialists, at least 50% of adults and 25% of children experience sleep disturbances.

With children staying in foster and care homes, the staff have observed that nearly 30% of them have sleep-related disturbances. We, as adults, can and must make sure that children are able to wake up in a happy mood. The time between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night is filled, in addition to school and studying, with sports and hobbies, playing with friends, running about in the yard, doing homework and chores. Sleep helps children gather energy for each new day and grow into an active and capable adult. Sleep disturbances should not be neglected, as most of them can be effectively treated.

Sleep is important

Ulrich Rabenschlag’s book “Kinder reisen durch die Nacht” deals with a period of about 4000 nights from the time of birth to the puberty of a child. He writes that from the 30th week onwards the foetus starts sleeping for the first time, but not in order to rest. No, his or her sleep starts with dreams! While directly after birth, dreams cover exactly one-half of a new-born’s sleeping time, with dream time growing shorter over time. As adults, we have to settle for just 20% of the initial time. Furthermore, the time we need for sleeping also decreases: before birth it is 24 hours, in infancy 16–14 hours, in puberty 10–9 hours and in adulthood 8 hours.
These figures indicate that sleep and dreams are very important, especially for children! Rabenschlag writes that sleep brings a new reality which is very important for the health of the soul and body. Until basic school, children do not make a strict distinction between fantasy, dreams and the events of the day. Only after contact with adult reality do they learn that they can change something with their actions. The dreams of a new-born help sort and process impressions of a day and save them in memory; in toddlers (between 2 and 3 years) the focus is on learning separation – when they learn to walk and distance from their mother. Sleep disturbances in a kindergarten child (between 4 and 6 years) may already be caused by emotional problems – events of the day may come to life during the night, causing fear of sleep (fear of separation), nightmares (processing of day’s events and fantasies), and the need to seek protection in the parents’ bed.

The President of the Estonian Sleep Medicine Association, Dr Erve Sõõru, says: “Parents are the ones who need to take care of the health of the sleep of their children and recognise a problem when a child needs help”.

Let’s take care of the health of our children’s sleep!

An adoptive parent shared a story where a one-and-a-half-year boy came to their family, having lived in a foster home since birth until finding a family. The mother was happy, as every time she put him to bed, a moment later the child was asleep. Later, she became anxious as she understood that the boy did not know to want more because he had never had someone to cuddle with, to safely test the boundaries. Laughing, the mother says that now that the child has had a home for more than six months things are getting “better” – sleep no longer comes so quickly and bedtime preparations get longer as the events of the day are discussed and hugs are shared. At two or three o’clock at night, mummy and daddy get a sleep companion and it is so good to wake up in his embrace. This is how their family grows together.

In the fairy tale “Can’t you sleep, Little Bear?” a little bear cub is afraid of sleep because he fears darkness. Big Bear brings him a little lantern, which reduces the darkness a bit, but still the Little Bear cannot fall asleep. Then Big Bear takes him a bigger lantern, to further reduce the darkness, but the Little Bear’s fear does not go away. Now, Big Bear hangs a third lantern over the cot, lighting up the whole cave, but now Little Bear is afraid of the darkness surrounding the cave. Good Big Bear thinks a bit and then leads the little cub by the paw outside. Little Bear is still afraid and clings to the mother. Now, Big Bear picks up the little cub and says that she has brought him the moon and the stars, and encourages him to look in the darkness. But Little Bear does not reply – he has fallen asleep in the warm protective embrace of Big Bear...

Triin Lumi
Mother of three daughters

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