Why is it So Hard for My Child to Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep?
By Kimberly Kirkpatrick Justice, Ph.D.
After a long day at work, caring for your children, and completing household duties, most parents look forward to the evening when they can put their children to bed and have a little “me” time. However, many parents find themselves arguing with their child about getting ready for bed, getting into bed, or dealing with last minute requests for one more hug or a stalling tactic that includes one more trip to the bathroom. Perhaps your child insists on you lying down with them in order to fall asleep or refuses to go to bed without the television playing in the background only to wake up in the middle of the night and insist that they join you in your bed or that you come back to their room. If this sounds all too familiar, it is likely that both your child and you are not getting enough sleep. Even small amounts of lost sleep can lead to a huge sleep debt over time making everyone in the house more likely to be grumpy, sluggish and just plain exhausted.
Sleep is essential for little bodies and minds. Children need sleep to remember what they learn, pay attention, organize their thoughts, predict what happens next, avoid negative consequences, react quickly, work efficiently and be creative. So here are a few tips for helping your child (and you!) get the best sleep possible.
- Your child should go to bed and wake up about the same time every day. There should not be more than an hour or so difference between the bedtime and waketime schedule from one day to the next.
- About 20 to 30 minutes before bed, your child should begin their bedtime routine so that he or she can wind down from the day. The routine should include calm activities (3 to 4) completed in the same order each night with the last step occurring in your child’s room. For example, eat a snack, brush teeth, changed into PJs, and read a book.
- Your child’s bedroom should be quiet, dark, and comfortable. We tend to sleep better in a room that is less than 75ºF. A small nightlight is fine.
- A light snack before bed is recommended. Heavy meals consisting of sugar or greasy foods an hour or two before bedtime may interfere with sleep.
- Avoid caffeine at least 4 to 6 hours before bedtime.
- The hour before bedtime is quiet time. Avoid rough play, playing outside, high-energy activities, and stimulating activities such as electronic games.
- Remove the television from your child’s bedroom. Many children develop a habit of “needing” the television to fall asleep. It is very difficult to set a limit and control your child’s television viewing if the TV is in the bedroom. Have an electronic check-in station (e.g., the kitchen counter) where all cell phones, computers, and handheld game systems are “checked-in” an hour before bedtime and “checked-out” in the morning.
- Naps should be geared to your child’s age and developmental needs. Napping in infancy through pre-school age is an essential part of sleep. School-age children and adolescents should not need naps on a regular basis, but if your child is very sleepy during the day, a short 30 to 45 minute nap in the early afternoon is fine. Be aware that naps that are too long or too late (e.g., past 4 pm) should be avoided because too much daytime sleep can make it difficult to fall asleep at the typical bedtime and stay asleep through the night.
- Your child should spend time outside everyday and get daily exercise.
- How your child falls asleep is essential! Avoid the habit of helping your child fall asleep by rocking, holding, feeding, or sleeping with your child. Put your child to bed drowsy but awake. No matter what age, children wake briefly throughout the night. These arousals occur between 2 to 6 times per night. The waking is normal, but your child will not be able to self-soothe and return back to sleep on their own if you helped them at bedtime. Studies clearly show that children who fall asleep by themselves at bedtime fall asleep faster, wake less often at night, and get more total sleep per night.
- Consistency and persistence is the key! Set firm bedtime limits. Giving your child a structured bedtime routine and regular bedtime helps them learn self-control.
If your child:
- Has trouble falling asleep (>30 minutes)
- Wakes frequently throughout the night
- Wakes crying and screaming
- Has trouble sleeping alone
- Appears to stop breathing in sleep
- Or is a restless sleeper
Contact your pediatrician, local sleep medicine doctor, or behavior sleep medicine specialist for an evaluation. You can find a listing of Behavioral Sleep Medicine Specialists at http://www.absm.org/BSMSpecialists.aspx or to find a Sleep Center near you http://www.sleepeducation.com/find-a-center.