Just A Little Encouragement

Helping Children Cope With Loss

Sleep consultant Mahaley Patel offers a plan to help parents navigate an experience that nobody wants to have – but many do.

A few months ago, I had a family reach out to me to help their three-year-old son. His grandmother, who took care of him several days a week, had passed away. He went from consistently sleeping through the night to waking up multiple times at night and refusing his naps.

I’ve dealt with a vast array of toddler sleep issues, but this one really gave me pause. I wanted to do my job and get this child’s sleep back on track, but I also wanted to be sensitive to the fact that he was trying to understand the fundamental reality that someone he loved was not coming back.

Related Read: The Things We Dread (Jordan’s first conversation with her son about death).

Explaining death to a young child is something that no parent wants to go through, but the reality is that many of us will. If you are reading this because you are grieving a loved one, I am so very sorry. I hope these tips help you navigate changes that may occur in your child’s sleep following the loss of a loved one.

Explain what happened: The first thing I recommend doing is explaining the death in terms that your child can understand. I think it’s our instinct as parents to be hesitant to discuss topics like death – we fear our child’s reaction, and the prospect of scaring them. Contrary to how it may feel, the more you talk about death and normalize it for your child, the less they will fear it. Explain it using terms they can understand, and make an effort to simplify and be direct with your language. “When someone dies, their body stops working, and we won’t be able to see them anymore.” I know it might sound forward, but direct language will make it less confusing and scary for them. Be sure to use the words “death” or “died” in your explanation. Research shows that using the actual words to explain what happened helps with a child’s understanding and grief process.

Don’t break routine: Children thrive on consistency, and this is especially important when a family is dealing with a loss. Try as much as possible to keep your daily routine at home. If your child is in school or has regular activities during the week, do your best to ensure that they still attend. Keeping a daily routine and sticking to your child’s nap/bedtime schedule, as best as possible, will help prevent sleep from being too disrupted.

Keep your child’s naptime: When sleep is impacted, it is usually a child’s nap that is the first thing to go. If your child is regularly napping and stops after the loss of a loved one, continue to hold that space for them to nap. Even if your child is quietly sitting in his or her room during their nap time, it is still important for them to have a midday break. Continue to offer the nap, and you will likely see it come back.

Related Read: Jordan’s experience with sleep training.

Night wakings: If your child starts waking up in the middle of the night, first begin with the suggestions above. Provide them with an explanation for what happened and open up the conversation for them to share their feelings and concerns. Sometimes an understanding of the changes in their life is all they need to feel safe sleeping again. If night wakings are still occurring, consider the following:

  • Keep a consistent and early bedtime: A huge contributor to night wakings is inadequate rest during the day or a too-late bedtime. Especially if your child has temporarily stopped napping, be sure to compensate with an early bedtime.
  • Do some research and develop a sleep plan for how to handle the night wakings. If you have previously used a sleep training method and had success with it, I recommend trying that first. If you do not know where to start or are feeling lost, there are wonderful sleep consultants out there that can help you.
  • If your child is in a crib, you can look into methods with some degree of parental involvement like the chair method, or doing timed checks.
  • If your child is in a bed and coming out of his or her room, try creating a bedtime ticket. The bedtime ticket is theirs to use (once) if they want an extra hug or kiss from a parent during the night. If they choose not to use the bedtime ticket, they get to pick a toy from a “treasure box: first thing in the morning as a reward. If they come out of their room after they have used the ticket, silently return them to their bed.
  • If you are working with a toddler, I recommend holding a family meeting once you have decided on a plan of action. Let your child know the rules, as well as any rewards or consequences. Children thrive when they understand your expectations.

I hope this guide helps you open up a conversation with your child about the loss of a loved one. If your child’s sleep habits change following a loss in the family, just know that it is totally normal…and it’s also normal to not have the energy to tackle said sleep problems right away. That’s okay. Take some time for yourself and your family, and when you feel ready, create a plan to help your child get the rest they need. 

– Mahaley

Mahaley Patel is a certified pediatric sleep consultant. She is also a Masters Candidate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy at Pepperdine University. She is the mother to a 3-year-old daughter, Amelie, and a 13-year-old Boxer, Coco, and wife to Ravi Patel. 

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