Children with Trauma and Attachment Disorders: Managing Sleep – Part Two

By | 2017-07-20T20:44:13+00:00 July 20th, 2017|

Bedtime and sleep are consistently two of the most difficult issues for parents to manage when working with children who have trauma and attachment disorders.

This is part two on the topic of managing sleep, while providing both the rationale and effective ways to help you and your child get through and past these tough issues.

The importance of sleep cannot and should not be minimized. Their recovery from attachment trauma requires restful and restorative sleep. Your survival and recovery through this period from being a parent of a child with trauma and attachment issues requires restful and restorative sleep!

Why do we need sleep?

The body and brain need time to repair. Dead cells need to be cleared and data needs to be organized and stored. The more active you are mentally and physically, the more repair you need, which is all done during sleep.

The more stress you are under, the more quantity and quality of sleep you need in order to get through that rough time, as well as to recover.

Children with attachment disorder and parents of children with attachment disorder are under HUGE amounts of stress.

Quality or Quantity

When it comes to sleep, quality takes preference over quantity. Therefore, in this blog, we will not only look at how to ease the bedtime process so you and your child can fall asleep earlier, thus gaining more sleep, but also explore what things you do have control over throughout the day to ensure that sleep is restful and restorative.

Sleep is run similarly to other laws of nature: it runs in predictable recurring cycles, and is negatively affected by environmental “toxins.”

Some of the environmental toxins for sleep include light and noise. In order for the systems in our bodies to function at their best, which includes repairing, restoration, and helping us to be physically and mentally optimized the following day, our sleeping environment requires darkness and quiet.

Last blog we talked about how all lights are not equal when it comes to sleep. The bedroom needs to be completely dark for quality sleep and cell repair, which occurs best during sleep.

Due to the damaging blue frequency lights from screens, there should be no screen time for at least an hour before bedtime, but if manageable, two hours is ideal.

Implementing Change

Before we jump into this week’s topics on how to optimize sleep for trauma and attachment disorders, I want to acknowledge the fact that parents can find it difficult to implement these changes.

One reason for this can be that removing all lights in the room or limiting screen time in the evening becomes a huge deal in the household.

When it comes to using lights, children usually claim that they are scared of the dark, and because parents are afraid of traumatizing them further, the lights are left on.

Given all the stress and issues our children need to overcome and heal from, our children depend on the best sleep possible. What is helpful, but not vital for other children is essential for children with attachment disorder.

Quality sleep is one of those essential things for children with attachment disorder. Yes, they will sleep better when they are healed, but their healing will be stunted if they are not sleeping well.

The three topics we are covering today on optimizing sleep for healing from chronic stress, trauma, and attachment disorders are activity, touch, and supplements.

1) Activity
The more physically and mentally active a person is during the day, the more tired they will be at night, therefore, the more they will require an adequate quantity and quality of sleep for restoration.

Having children physically and mentally active throughout the day is essential for their well-being. It helps their nervous system relax at bedtime, and should help them fall asleep faster. As long as these are activities that have positive associations, they will help to rewire the nervous system and brain in a positive way.

Exercise and hard physical and mental activity should be stopped 2 hours prior to bedtime. Exercising closer to bedtime will delay when the body is ready to fall asleep, because it will still have chemicals like endorphins and dopamine in the blood that are stimulants like caffeine.

Author and motivational speaker, Brian Tracy, teaches how hard mental activity, such as writing a book, shouldn’t be done before bedtime, because it will delay the brain from relaxing and going to sleep. This is the same for any activity that requires a lot of focus.

So, the activities in the 2 hours leading up to bedtime should be relaxing and meaningful. Since screen time should be eliminated during this time of healing a child with Attachment Disorder (and at least one hour prior to bedtime for everybody else), this is going to take some planning.

The activities leading up to bedtime should reflect things that are relaxing for your child. This is very individual! It is so important to become an expert on your child’s nervous system.

If they are just beginning the healing process, they will be triggered more than relaxed by your presence and engagement. However, they will also be triggered if you are too far away.

For children in this stage of healing, I recommend being in the same room and setting them up with coloring, a puzzle, or legos. The important thing is to give them something for their hands to do, but still be engaged with the environment. Use their hypervigilance to work in your favor, and use this time to prove to them that all is safe before bedtime.

For reasons that we will discuss later, it is important in the early stages of healing to have them on the floor doing their work while you sit in a chair. This is important in establishing respect and trust – the first two essentials of developing a secure attachment.

If there are others in the family, this is a time that there can be conversation, but know that they are listening to every word. You can share about your day, but what you say of others, they will internalize. They are subconsciously deciding whether they can trust you based on how you feel and how you talk about other people.

If you can’t say anything positive or want to have quiet time, it can work really well to put on an audiobook. The children can get interested in the story, and the “bedtime routine” can be something they look forward to and actually enjoy.

Because of their nature to control their environment until they are healed, it can sometimes be more helpful to do an audiobook rather than conversation at first. Otherwise, they may try to jump in and control the conversation. This will defeat the whole purpose, and they will leave this time feeling insecure and triggered, plus leaving you more exhausted.

If you play an audiobook, don’t think you’re off the hook in terms of them using this time to decide if they can trust you! They are still observing you, so make sure you have the appearance of being calmly in control for them to feel safe leading up to bedtime.

I do not recommend reading or journaling for children during this time, because it encourages and facilitates dissociation by partially disengaging them from you and their environment. They never fully disengage, and they spend quite a bit of time in this partial freeze response where they are reading, but not comprehending much because their other senses are still hypervigilant.

To prevent further wiring of the freeze survival pattern into their nervous system, we need to keep them engaged with the environment, but not at a level that overwhelms and triggers them.

As they heal, you can engage more directly with them during the bedtime routine and not have them triggered by it. This is where tracking their nervous system becomes really helpful so you can gauge when to move in closer and when to stay just far enough away, but not too far away.

For yourself, a bedtime yoga could be an excellent way to unwind and get your own nervous system into parasympathetic state for sleep.

2) Touch
Touch is also very individualized based on where your child is at in their healing process.

As they heal, your touch will become more relaxing.

Let me clarify, what we are discussing here today just refers to before bedtime. You will be doing the hard work of recreating and redoing the first year of life with them during the day.

However, before bedtime, you will need to switch gears to help their nervous system relax after a hard day “of work.” This will enable them to be refreshed, restored, and help them to continue a hard day of work the next day.

During the day, touching is an essential part of their healing process.

During the early stages though, since touch may be more triggering for your child than relaxing, back off before bedtime to allow their system to calm down and relax. The nervous system has to get into relaxed parasympathetic mode to fall asleep. You cannot put your child into a sympathetic state, send them to bed, and expect them to stay in bed, let alone fall asleep.

As unnatural as it feels then, for a period of time, you may need to hold back the nurture since it will send them into sympathetic. This is where you can encourage open and honest conversations with your child, and help them develop a sense of curiosity.

Pick two things, and ask them to tell you which feels more comfortable. Play with this! Start with these two things: sitting across the room from them and then sitting next to them.

It is really important for you to be in a curious state yourself, or their answers may hurt and feel like a rejection. When they tell you which feels more comfortable, it is helpful to have a pre-thought out response, like “I’m so glad you can tell that feels more comfortable to you.”

If you want to super-charge the moment, you can introduce a little Somatic Experiencing and ask them “Where in your body does that feel more comfortable to you,” “How do you know that feels more comfortable,” and “As I move back to where it feels more comfortable to you, what changes inside your body?” These are the types of questions that will help you become an expert on your child’s nervous system.

Regardless of how much touch from you they find stressful or relaxing at this stage in their healing, Magic Socks is a term for a way to help them relax and more specifically, to calm down their racing thoughts.

Magic Socks is done by using two pairs of socks: one cotton and another wool. First, soak the feet in the warmest water that is tolerated and comfortable. In the meantime, wet the pair of cotton socks in cold water and wring them out. After soaking the feet in warm water, put on the cold and wet cotton socks and put the dry wool socks on over the cotton socks.

3) Supplements

Now let’s talk about giving supplements to children for sleep. Are supplements safe for children, and what are the safe supplements to help children with Attachment Disorder sleep at night?

The following supplements have been used and are safe for helping a child relax and get restful sleep despite, chronic stress and trauma. While they are safe to use indefinitely, the plan would be to use them to optimize quality sleep until they can sleep well without them.

Establishing a regular sleep cycle
One of the most important uses of the supplements will be to establish a regular sleep cycle. As such, your first work will be to decide on a bedtime schedule that works for you and your family. Decide on a bedtime for the next month that will be consistent every single day and that will allow for adequate sleep for a child healing from attachment trauma (usually 10 hours).

For all the supplements listed below, you will have your child take them 30 minutes prior to scheduled bedtime so that they will have time to start working.

General Principles for Supplements for Children with Attachment Disorder

You can never know for sure exactly how their brain and body will respond to the supplements. Negative reactions will look like increased agitation or anxiety. The best approach is to start at the lowest dose listed, and increase the dose every 2 or 3 days up to the highest dose listed.

If after one week you have not seen any benefit from a particular supplement, you can stop it and try a different one. There is no benefit in taking a supplement if it is not helping!

5-HTP or Tryptophan:
benefits: improves sleep by increasing melatonin levels and improves mood, such as depressive and anxiety symptoms
doses: 100-300 mg of 5-HTP or 250-500 mg of Tryptophan.

benefits: relaxes the body and muscles, relieves anxiety
doses: 50 -500 mg

benefits: blocks adrenalin and calms racing thoughts
doses: 100-400 mg

benefits: induces sleep
doses: 0.3-3 mg. Should be given 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime

Valerian Root
benefits: used for anxiety and insomnia
doses: 100-200 mg. Need to take for one week to build up levels prior to seeing an effect


Sleep is so essential – these tips will get you on your way to having your child getting to bed and getting restful sleep!

Here’s to a quiet night… and to healing,

Dr. Aimie

Related: Attachment Disorder As A (Curable) Disease

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