Houston area doctor develops program aimed to help children in foster care sleep better

Children in foster care (Jason Nguyen, Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

HOUSTON – Securing placement for children in foster care is vital in disrupting poor behaviors or at least a restful night’s sleep.

Many of the children looking for a place of comfort see an insurmountable deal of adversity.

“They are in your schools, they are in your churches, they are out there, and it’s an area that affects all of us,” said the clinical director for The Sanctuary Foster Care Services, Annie Atwood. “It can be really emotionally, very trying, and an agonizing thing for them at night at the end of the day. Especially, if there is a lot of uncertainty in their court case. They have not had regular visitation with Mom and Dad. You know, they wonder about those things at the end of the day, and it can really cause a lot of anxiety, which typically comes out at bedtime.”

About three years ago, Atwood’s team started wrap-around services for more than 200 children in foster care and their families. They did this with the goal of helping kids feel safe in their beds.

“A lot of times kids actually become more hyperactive if they don’t have a lot of sleep, which can kind of be counterintuitive. You would think, well they should be really tired if they are not getting enough sleep, but that is not the case,” said Atwood.

To get more kids to fall asleep, Atwood’s team partnered up with University of Houston’s Dr. Candice Alfano who developed a program called “Sleep & Adjustment in Foster Environments” or SAFE for short.

Children in foster care (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“A majority of children in foster care struggle with sleep on a regular basis. We are talking problems falling asleep, staying asleep, nightmares, night terrors, general nighttime fears,” says Dr. Alfano.

By using a trauma-informed approach, the doctor develops small strategic plans with the foster care families over telehealth.

“Being able to bring the energy level down, because if you can imagine, children in foster care, a lot of times, there is trauma that has occurred at bedtime. If there has been sexual or physical abuse that’s happened at night, their sense of safety is disrupted when it is bedtime,” she adds.

Dr. Alfano says prescriptions for a safe environment at night can involve a set music playlist, incremental movements foster parents can make, and a consistent routine.

“Children grow physically while they sleep. Their immune systems build. Their emotional and behavioral centers of the brain reset,” said Alfano.

That allows the child to wind down, she says, instead of wondering who is going to take care of them next.

About the Authors:

As an Emmy award-winning journalist, Jason strives to serve the community by telling in-depth stories and taking on challenges many pass over. When he’s not working, he’s spending time with his girlfriend Rosie, and dog named Dug.