Kids and Sleep During a Crisis, by AK. in Texas

We live in Tornado Alley which means we’ve had more than a few opportunities to break out the 72 hour kits and find out what works and what doesn’t. However, one thing we were surprised to find was that we hadn’t figured out what to do when the crisis extends through bedtime, or when it occurs while the kids are asleep. If you have to “hunker down” during a crisis, it’ll take a while for you or the kids to get sleepy. For the adults, this isn’t that big a deal, but when children miss sleep, they have a tendency to become cranky and irritable. Since that is the last thing adults need, here is some things we learned, both from emergency situations and from co-sleeping with our children when they were younger, that might help give other folks some ideas to take care of this aspect of preparedness.

* Let them snuggle up to you – touch helps many children feel more secure. I’ve had children fall asleep with their back against mine, or with just the top of their head touching my leg. It helped me calm down as well since it helped me keep tabs on them while they were asleep (I’m a light sleeper when my kids are sleeping in the room with me).

* Light massage – Depending on the child, a light massage on the neck or even brushing hair away from the face can relax a child enough to sleep. I’ve found it works well with toddlers and young children. I think my older kids would look at me funny if I tried that with them now.

* Smaller babies can be held or swung – My husband would hold our babies in his arms and gently swing them back and forth in front of him. This was the only way he could put them to sleep when they were with him. I couldn’t duplicate that effect, but in a way I had it easier. All I had to do was hold them on my chest and they would fall asleep.

* Keep a routine as much as possible – Routines help children feel secure, not to mention learn that everything has a time, including sleep. In a crisis, this need becomes even more pronounced, so try to keep routines the same as much as possible, even if the location is different.

* Create a transition time – Create a space between regular activities and bedtime when the television is off, communication equipment is turned down or moved so that the kids won’t focus as much on it (very difficult that one), any games are quiet, and bedtime is clearly acknowledged as coming soon, even for parents.

* Be aware of their security or lack thereof during the day – Watch to see how your children are handling the changes that come with a crisis. Doing what you can to make sure they feel secure during the day will help when the darkness arrives, visibility is lessened and the only security they see is their little group in the glow of the lantern.

* If children are used to sleeping alone, give them some space before bed – Sometimes, again depending on the child and most definitely with older children, it might help to create boundaries, even if it is just “their space” around their sleeping bag. Our kids go through this in phases, though this need for personal space seems to grow as the children do.

* Try to all go to sleep together as a family – Though there may be a need to stay abreast of information or keep watch, try to make sure one parent or adult member of the family goes to sleep at the same time as the kids. Kids live by example and if you don’t make sleep a priority when the time comes, they won’t put much emphasis on it either.

There are also a few things we’ve found help in non-crisis, day to day life that make sleeping or just resting more feasible in a crisis situation.

* Have a routine – We have seven kids, and I’ve learned that the freewheeling schedules I grew up with don’t help when life truly goes crazy. One would think it would go the other way, but our experience has been that when you don’t have a scheduled bedtime it is far too easy to let all sorts of things slide in a crisis. And if the kids have been taught that any time is good for anything, it puts added stress on the parents who may need that time to talk or just relax for a moment (not to mention possibly getting a few winks in themselves). This is true of more than just bedtime. Meals made at the same, general time every day, traditions that surround little events (like prayer before meals or a small routine regarding when a person leaves the house) and other regular, scheduled events give a child structure and a sense of control in a world that has far more chaos than order in it. These schedules and routines should have some amount of flexibility, obviously, but when a tornado warning is announced or a flash flood is creeping along your street, you’ll have something to modify as opposed to chaos and the terror that comes with it.

* In line with this, have a consistent nap time – Sometimes we let it go, depending on the child. But every time I let a kid fall asleep at 4pm I regretted it that night.

* Make clean up part of bedtime – I didn’t grow up in a house that made at least clearing a path through the room part of the evening routine. I’ve tried to do that with my kids and it’s been a lifesaver when a tornado warning came in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine trying to herd sleepy kids to a safe location while trying to step over toys, clothes, and/or assorted games. Because the floor has been clear, I’ve been able to pick toddlers up out of bed with minimal wake-up, giving them and me a greater chance they’ll fall asleep again soon (this depends on the kid but at the very least it provided a smooth transition to waking up and kept them calm… at best we have had children fall right back asleep once settled in).

* Turn off the television as much as possible – We all know these things (television, video games, Internet) are highly addictive. Much has already been written about that, but I’ll just add that when we keep television restricted to the weekends our kids sleep better, especially our boys. One son in particular has a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night if he watches too much television. I have no idea why but for our family this is true.

* Spend time with them during the day – I know in our current culture it’s very difficult to spend time with your kids. I’m lucky in that I get to stay home with my kids while my husband works. Getting used to being around kids all day (and often at night if they aren’t feeling well) is another essay in itself, but I just want to add that whether or not you stay home with them, it’s very easy to push them aside — yes, even stay-at-home parents. Spending time with them during the day, whether it’s making a meal together, playing a game, teaching them a skill or just doing chores, teaches you more about your individual child’s temperament (very useful in a crisis situation) and, we’ve found, makes bedtime less of a problem.

* Get some sleep yourself – I know I mentioned this in the earlier section regarding a crisis, but I mention it again because kids really do live by example. Our kids never had any illusions about fun and exciting stuff that went on after they went to sleep because once or twice I would let the kids stay up while I got ready for bed (I made it clear that when I went to bed, they did as well). They learned pretty fast that nothing exciting happened after their bedtime, and that mom and dad got tired just like they did.