Tips and Tricks for Resolving Children Sleep Issues
It’s 10PM, you’re exhausted, but your little one is simply refusing to close their eyes;
it’s 7AM, you’re late to work, and your teenager is sound asleep – good luck waking them!
These are common situations affecting thousands of parents and families. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, up to 50% of children and up to 40% of adolescents experience sleep problems. Establishing good sleep habits and maintaining proper sleep hygiene is as difficult as it is crucial for healthy development. Read on to get some actionable tips and tricks for resolving sleep troubles that your family may face.
Let’s Talk Routines
Routines are essential for creating good sleep habits and resolving children’s sleep problems. Both wake-ups and bedtimes require structure and a familiar order of events for kids to be able to smoothly transition from sleep to wakefulness and vice versa.
Wake-up routines are meant to set kids up for a successful morning and day, so they can include some light stretching or exercise, dressing, and grooming. If your child has difficulty waking up in the morning, use light to help you. Open the curtain and blinds to let in natural light. Also, use overhead lights in the bedroom and the rest of the house to “wake” them, as needed. Alarm clocks that have a wake-up light function can help, too.
Bedtime can be especially tricky for children with sleep problems. There is some variation in best practices depending on the child’s age, but generally, sleep routines should be concise and short: wash up, time to relax with a book or song, and get in bed.
For toddlers, it might be helpful to use visual schedules with the order of events for the child to follow along. This allows them to feel a sense of control when they know what will happen first, next, and last. Also, if there is a bedtime feed – whether it’s nursing or bottle – it’s helpful to have it first in the routine and with the light on. This helps separate the act of feeding and sleeping, as well as giving your child’s body time to digest.
For older children and teenagers, bedtime routines may be more independent, but you should still encourage a daily structure, especially for kids experiencing problems with sleep.
There are many reasons people have trouble falling asleep, and kids are no different. Some common causes of difficulty at the time of sleep onset are being overtired in general, having something “on their mind,” or going through a developmental leap.
Tip: Try out the “parent’s job check” technique – once your kiddo is in bed, tell them that you will check on them after completing one or two necessary adult nighttime chores. (I.e., doing the dishes, cleaning up the kitchen, taking the dog out, packing tomorrow’s lunch, etc.) This gives the child time to lay quietly and start falling asleep with the reassurance that their parent will come back after that “job” is done. It helps to give a concrete task for the “check” instead of a time, say 5 minutes.
Another sleep problem children may face is waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep. Night wakings are a normal neurological function: the body shifts in and out of sleep cycles several times each night. If your child seems distressed, do a quick check and let them know they are safe, but it’s still night.
Tip: Make these checks quick, quiet, and boring. Try not to turn on the light, hold the child, or talk to them too much. Your goal is to get them back to sleep by maintaining the sleepy environment – keep any stimulation to a minimum.
If your child wakes on a regular basis and needs help getting back to sleep, a few things may be standing in the way. They may be overtired in general, they may get too much assistance at bedtime, or there could be an underlying medical condition. Talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned.
Sometimes, children’s sleep problems are less about ability and more about willingness. Bedtime stalling and protests are part of the parenting journey! Here are some ways to help kids get on board with sleep routines:
- A developmentally appropriate clock can help reinforce the idea that bedtimes and morning wake-ups are fixed times each day.
- A visual schedule can serve as a reminder of the routine events; i.e., after eating, we read, and after reading, we turn the light off.
- A reward or consequence system can be very helpful with bedtime challenges and habit formation.
- A weekly chart of “sleep manners” can be helpful to reinforce the idea of your expectations and house rules. Click here for a free downloadable chart.
- For older children, a reminder of the natural consequence of being tired in the morning, as well as being potentially rushed and late for school, will often give motivation to understand the importance of going to bed on time.
Let’s Put Sleep Problems to Bed
At the end of the day, remember: as frustrating as sleep problems are, they are common and quite normal for many children. Keep establishing routines and working together with your family to form good habits. If your kids are really struggling with sleep, seek out help from professional sleep specialists and coaches – check out the sleep coaching options at PM Behavioral Health!
About the Expert
Christina Gantcher is a certified sleep coach at PM Behavioral Health, helping support families with children ages 0-18 years to promote healthy sleep. She has served as a consultant for several major telehealth platforms providing pediatric sleep advice and held workshops for various companies and educational groups. Christina’s educational background includes an M.Sc. in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology from University College London and The Sleep Lady®, Kim West’s Gentle Sleep Coach program.