PARENT'S GUIDE
To a Child's Sleep

When your kids don’t sleep, you don’t sleep. Healthy rest for the entire family is essential for a healthy and happy home. So if your midnight hours feel more like the night of the living dead, take comfort in knowing there are solutions out there.

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Our parent’s guide to a child’s sleep can help you and your children achieve the rest you deserve. We go over some of the problems parents are facing and some common and highly researched solutions.

 

But before we dive in, it might be comforting to know you are not alone in your endeavors.

50 percent of children have problems sleeping at some time during their childhood, says Zheng (Jane) Fan, MD, of the UNC Department of Neurology.


[1] UNC Health Talk

Before we can realize the full extent of childhood nighttime problems, we need to know how much rest our kiddos need.

Source: “How Much Sleep Do Babies and Kids Need?” – [2] National Sleep Foundation

Sleep Problems and Solutions for Infants and Toddlers

If babies and toddlers need to rest so much, why do so many of them put up such a fuss at night?

 

There are several reasons why our kids might not want to fall asleep. In the case of my two-year-old daughter, she finds a pair of dirty socks stuffed behind her bed more entertaining than the back of her eyelids. And can you really blame her?

 

These babies and toddlers often spend all day with their parents and are then expected to spend 8 to 10 hours alone. This can cause anxiety, fear, boredom, hunger, etc. The list goes on, but let’s cover the most common reasons.

NEED COMFORT

Definition:

Whether your child is dealing with separation anxiety or has been unable to self-soothe, they may be up because they feel like they need mom or dad to fall asleep.

“This is often a normal part of development called separation anxiety, when a baby does not understand that separations are temporary.”


[3] Columbia University, Department of Neurology

Expert Opinion:

“Consider a pacifier. If your baby has trouble settling down, a pacifier might do the trick. In fact, research suggests that using a pacifier during sleep helps reduce the risk of SIDS.”


[4] Mayo Clinic Staff

Young Dr Illustration
RESISTANCE TO SLEEP

Definition:

Toddlers have figured out they can think for themselves, and why go to bed when you can read a book or watch TV?

“The requests for an extra hug, kiss, story, and water are typical in children ages 3-5. Parents often feel frustrated when their child asks for their third glass of water after they’ve tucked their child in bed twice, given them an extra kiss.”


[5] Stephanie Wagner, PhD, NYU Medical

Expert Opinion:

“If the child postpones bedtime or tries to share your bed every night, he is taking advantage of your good nature. Tell your child what you want her to do: At bedtime, a good sleeper stays in her bed and doesn't scream. During the night, a good sleeper doesn't leave her bedroom or wake up her parents unless it is an emergency.”


[6] Barton D. Schmitt, MD

HUNGER

Definition:

Infants might wake up at night to feed and toddlers may need a good hearty meal to help them rest through the night.

“I tell parents to offer a snack high in protein or fiber.”


[7] Dr. Stephanie Jackson, MD

Expert Opinion:

Children should not have an empty stomach before bed. This actually is more important than what a child eats.”


[7] Dr. Stephanie Jackson, MD

STIMULATION

Definition:

Whether your baby is teething, they need a diaper change, or they wake up hungry, these stimuli can easily arouse them.

“There's no question that teething wakes children at night and disrupts sleep.”

 

“Many infants who use a pacifier will wake up between 6-12 months of age when the pacifier falls out.”


[8] Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP, Contributor for HuffPost

Expert Opinion:

“When your baby needs care or feeding during the night, use dim lights, a soft voice and calm movements. This will tell your baby that it's time to sleep — not play.”


[4] Mayo Clinic Staff

Young Dr Illustration
UNDEVELOPED CIRCADIAN RHYTHM

Definition:

Infants are not born with fully developed sleep cycles.

“At birth, infants lack an established circadian rhythm and hence sleep across multiple intervals throughout the day and night in short bouts, which may also be due to infants’ feeding needs.”


[9] National Center for Biotechnology Information

Expert Opinion:

Respect your baby's preferences. If your baby is a night owl or an early bird, you might want to adjust routines and schedules based on these natural patterns.”


[4] Mayo Clinic Staff

Young Dr Illustration

School-Aged Children Sleep Habits

School-aged children share many of the same sleep-related problems as infants and toddlers, but they also have a unique list of concerns of their own. As they get older, adolescents struggle to juggle a social life, school, extracurricular activities, and healthy nighttime habits.

SCREENTIME

Definition:

As kids develop they gain more access to LED screens like TVs and smartphones, which can attribute to sleep deprivation.

“In conclusion, it appears that adolescents’ technology use before bed is a risk factor for later
bedtimes, and possibly shorter sleep.”


[10] Kate Bartel, PhD; Cele Richardson, PhD; and Michael Gradisar, PhD, Flinders University

Expert Opinion:

“Plan up to 1 hour of quiet time before bed… TV watching, heavy homework, or computer gaming should NOT be part of quiet time.”


[11] Cleveland Clinic

Young Dr Illustration
TRANSITIONING INTO SCHOOL

Definition:

Most students have summer off, making for a difficult transition back to school.

“When the daylight hours lengthen and school lets out for the summer, it’s easy to take a relaxed attitude toward kids’ sleep habits. But despite the fact that few children want to go to bed before it’s dark outside, it’s not a good idea ditch the regular bedtime schedule.”


[12] National Sleep Foundation

Expert Opinion:

“Parents should start now, by easing bedtime back at least 15 minutes earlier each night, and then waking the kids up 15 minutes earlier in the morning. Do this – even on the weekends – until the child’s schedule is aligned with how early they will need to wake up for the start of a school day.”


[13] Dr. Timothy  Morgenthaler, AASM

SLEEP WALKING

Definition:

This condition is more prevalent in children than adults and is often caused due to a lack of rest. It has even been linked to screen time.

“Sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) is a behavior in which a child appears to wake up during the night and walk or do other activities without any memory of having engaged in the activities.”


[14] Cleveland Clinic

Expert Opinion:

“In many cases simply improving sleep hygiene may eliminate the problem.”


[15] The National Sleep Foundation

Young Dr Illustration

General Sleep Solutions

Whatever the issue may be. There are several possible solutions that can help get you and your kiddo the rest you deserve.

Develop a Sleep Routine

Studies show this is true for both adults and children. Setting and sticking to a habitual schedule can prepare you for bedtime.

Child's Sleep Routine

Example

My toddler's bedtime routine is more in-depth, as this is what our daughter typically needs to fall asleep, so feel free to adjust this as you feel necessary.

 

We first eat a yummy dinner, pop bubbles in the bath, brush her teeth, put on cozy pajamas, pick up her toys, read a story (or 5), sing a fun song, tuck her snugly into bed, and she’s off to dreamland (hopefully). And that typically does the trick!

 

A routine for an older child could be, bathe, brush teeth, read a book, and fall asleep.

“Sleep associations are incredibly strong. The repetitive nature of a parent’s exact actions before bed… are very powerful.”


[16] National Sleep Foundation

Establish a Sleep-friendly Bedroom

A messy bedroom naturally calls children to come out and play. If they can see it, whether it be your toddler's choo-choo train or your teenager's Nintendo Switch, if the plaything is visible then it is a viable play option. With your child's help, clean up each night and put the toys in a secure location, like a toy chest or closet where they should not be a distraction.

 

Though the room should be kept dark and toys not readily accessible, it is okay for a child to hold onto a security item, like a stuffed animal or blanket.

“It is fine to allow security objects, such as a special blanket or stuffed animal, to be a part of the bedtime routine.”


[11] Cleveland Clinic

Schedule Naps Strategically

Sometimes our kids are not ready to go to bed when we want them to be. Trim back their nap times, this should help them get tired just a bit earlier.

“If your child isn't tired at bedtime, you might be fighting a losing battle. Try scaling back on any daytime naps.”


[17] Mayo Clinic Staff

Exercise Each Day

A daily workout can wear out your body so you are ready to hit the bed come night time. Children don’t need a gym membership to do this either. Toddlers simply need some time to crawl around, run, or dance, and older children can supplement a workout with sports, playing outside, or other recreational activities.

 

Though exercise is great, children should avoid it directly before bed. The body releases endorphins that can excite and energize your child’s mind, keeping them from sleeping. Best to schedule exercise at the latest 2 hours before bed.

A Little Boy Running Illustration

“The obvious, widely recognized, and commonly self-realized sleep quality improvements associated with exercise has lead to adopting the canon “maintain a regular exercise program” as one of the veritable 10-commandments of sleep.”


[19] Max Hirshkowitz, Ph.D., The National Sleep Foundation

Pediatric Sleep Disorders

If you’ve tried these solutions and shuteye continues to evade your child, it may be time to get them in to see their medical practitioner. You may even have some more serious concerns that require a doctor visit. When it comes to medical problems, nothing truly beats the hands-on experience a doctor can provide.

Illustration of a Boy Scared of Dark

Sleepwalking

This is a type of parasomnia, an undesired nighttime behavior, and can quickly become a serious concern as children can fall and seriously hurt themselves or someone else.

Night Terrors

Often result in screaming and thrashing while asleep. This differs from nightmares, as the sleeper remains asleep during their episode.

Insomnia

This condition makes it hard for sleepers to not only fall asleep, but it also makes it very difficult to stay asleep. Children who suffer from insomnia often experience a continuous feeling of sleepiness.

Hypersomnia

This condition causes patients to have a hard time staying awake during the day. These children report being able to fall asleep at just about any time.

Sleep Apnea

This condition causes sleepers to have “mini awakenings” that are caused by a respiratory disruption while sleeping. Causing them to not get a truly restorative nights’ rest.

Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder

This condition causes patients to consistently wake and rise in an overly delayed schedule to normal solar wake and sleep cues. They fall asleep late and rise later in the morning than the average sleeper.

Circadian Rhythm Disorder

These conditions affect the body’s internal clock. People with this disorder often do not follow the most socially accepted times to be awake and sleep. These are your night owls and larks.

Frequently Asked Questions

When is it okay for my kid to take a nap?

Kids are okay to take a nap, especially from 0 months to 5 years old. As children get older they should typically nap less if they are on a healthy sleep schedule. A 30 to 90-minute nap could potentially be beneficial for older children if they live an active lifestyle.

What happens if your child doesn’t get enough sleep?

Toddlers: Could potentially have too much energy.
Children: Decreased awareness, bad mood, and poor academic performance.
Teenagers: Irritability and frequent mood changes.

Lead by Example

Parents, let's face it. We need to rest, too. The best way to get it may be by showing our youngsters how.

  1. Show your kids that you have your own bedtime routine. They will likely recognize this and apply parts of it to their own schedule.

  2. Try having a full-blown technology shut down before bed. This can show your kids that this is something you just don’t do before bed.

  3. Do your best to have a consistent bedtime. As you establish this habit, it will make it that much easier to enforce your child's bedtime because you will likely be feeling pretty tired soon after you tuck your kid in.

  4. Anything you can do, your kids can do better. Try to avoid all-nighters. If they hear you up watching Netflix at 2 a.m., they’re going to want to join in on the fun.

Conclusion

Children of all ages struggle to get adequate sleep and whether your child is in diapers or getting ready to head off to college, you should now have some tools to help him or her get some rest.

 

Go ahead. Give these things a try and if you find success be sure to share this info with friends and family. Hopefully as our kids begin to get sleep more, we can get more sleep too.

[1] Why Won’t My Kid Sleep?, UNC Health Talk


[2] How Much Sleep Do Babies and Kids Need?, National Sleep Foundation


[3] What are the sleep needs of an infant?, Columbia University, Department of Neurology


[6] Sleep: Bedtime Resistance, Summit Medical Group


[9] Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review, National Center for Biotechnology Information


[11] Healthy Sleep Habits for Children, Cleveland Clinic


[13] Get the kids to sleep and ready for back to school, American Academy of Sleep Science


[14] Sleepwalking, Cleveland Clinic

[15] Sleepwalking, National Sleep Foundation

[16] Perfecting Your Child's Bedtime Routine, National Sleep Foundation


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The Sleep Advisor