Do your kids frequently wake you up at night because they can’t sleep? Are they restless around bedtime? Try some of the tips below to help your kids fall and stay asleep (and get some relief yourself!).

Understanding sleep problems in children

While it’s frustrating to deal with a fussy toddler or rush around in the morning because your child struggles to wake up, help is available. Many sleep problems are linked to bedtime habits and daytime behaviour that you can work with your child to change. With a little patience and discipline, you can get them on track to more restful nights.

How much sleep do children need?

Before you determine if your child has a sleep problem or disorder, it will help to understand children’s unique sleep needs. To function at their best, children and teens typically need more sleep than adults. The chart below outlines the recommended hours that developing kids should spend in slumber.

How many hours of sleep do kids need?
Age group Recommended sleep time
Infants (4 to 12 months) 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
Toddlers (1 to 2 years) 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
Children (3 to 5 years) 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
Children (6 to 12 years) 9 to 12 hours
Teens (13 to 18 years) 8 to 12 hours

Signs that your child isn’t getting enough sleep

child yawning

Children, just like adults, have trouble controlling their moods when they’re sleep deprived. Sleep, or lack thereof, affects much of our behaviour and state of mind. Sometimes the symptoms of insufficient sleep can even mimic those of ADHD. Ask yourself, does your child:

  • Often seem cranky, irritable, or over-emotional?
  • Have trouble concentrating at school or at home? Has a teacher informed you of this problem?
  • Fall asleep while riding in the car?
  • Appear to have trouble following conversations? Do they seem to “space out” a lot?
  • Have trouble waking up or fall back asleep after you’ve gotten them up for the day?
  • Often “crash” much earlier than their regular bedtime?

If this sounds like your child, you may have a troubled sleeper on your hands. Sleep problems in children are often not cause for concern. Just like you have to teach them how to eat and use the toilet, you also need to train young children how to get proper rest. If your child wakes up often in the night, or has trouble settling down, it could mean they’re struggling with insomnia, one of the biggest sleep issues among kids.

If children can’t sleep, it’s usually a result of daytime habits or how they spend their time right before bed. Younger children usually can’t make this connection, so you’ll have to act as their sleep detective. Here are some reasons why your child can’t fall or stay asleep:

  • Yes, they are young, but children also experience stress. Ask them how school is going and how things are with their friends. Is someone bullying them? Also consider any changes to their living environment. Sleep disturbances could result from parents’ marital problems, the arrival of a new baby, or a change in sleeping arrangements that now require a child to share a bedroom with a sibling, parent, or grandparent.
  • Many sodas and energy drinks contain caffeine, so limit your child’s consumption past lunchtime. Better yet, try to cut out these types of drinks as much as possible.
  • Side effects of medications.  Some drugs, such as those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antidepressants, also cause insomnia.
  • Other medical issues.  Sometimes insomnia is linked to another medical issue. It could be sleep related, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, or perhaps it’s triggered by a stuffy nose from allergies, growing pains, or itchy skin from eczema. Make sure your child is receiving regular health exams to identify any issues that could interfere with sleep.

Setting the Mood for Bedtime

To get your child ready for sleep, start establishing a relaxing, pre-bedtime routine. This should last about 20-45 minutes and include three to four soothing activities. One example could be having your child take a bath, reading them a story, and singing a lullaby. Make sure the routine doesn’t involve television, a smartphone, or other electronics. The blue light emitted from these devices disrupts the body’s sleep/wake cycle and makes it more difficult to fall asleep. If your child connects certain behaviour with bed at a consistent time, it will prepare their body and mind for rest. Set a pattern where you’re not in the room when they fall asleep, so they don’t associate your presence with the onset of sleep.

Build Daytime Habits that Support Night Time Sleep

In some cases, a child’s inability to fall and stay asleep is related to daytime behaviour. This is mostly the case with adolescents and teens. Setting good lifestyle habits help ensure a restful night at any age.

  • Make sure your child uses the bed only for sleep.  Does your child do homework or use the computer in bed? Try to encourage them use the bed only for sleep or a pre-bedtime ritual (reading a book, for example). Otherwise, the brain will subconsciously start to associate the bed with other activities.
  • Try to keep the same sleep schedule, even on weekends.  This will make it easier for your child to wake up and fall asleep naturally. Adolescents should not need to sleep much more than an hour past their usual wakeup time on the weekends. If they do, this indicates that they aren’t getting enough sleep during the week.
  • Keep your child from going to bed too hungry or full.  A light snack (such as warm milk and a banana) before bed is a good idea. However, heavy meals within an hour or two of bedtime may keep kids awake.
  • Avoid giving kids caffeinated products, especially in the afternoon or evening.  These include soda, coffee, tea, or chocolate. Some chamomile tea, however, could help the body relax.
  • Encourage an active lifestyle.  Regular exercise prevents restlessness at night. An hour every day is the recommended amount. However, try to keep your kids from vigorous activity within three hours of bedtime..
  • Spend quality time together.  Some kids want to stay up later because they’re craving more attention from their parents. If both parents work during the day, evenings are when they’re available. Even just asking kids about their friends or interests can go a long way. For babies, spend a few minutes singing to them, making eye contact, or interacting in a gentle way as they wind down for the night.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

child running from imaginary monster

Little cute child running away from a funny monster – Child fears and insecurities concept

When kids get to preschool age, fear of the dark tends to set in, and so do more frequent nightmares. Many kids have vivid imaginations, so make sure they avoid scary or intense TV shows or stories before bed. Like in adults, issues and feelings that kids are working through manifest themselves in dreams. Has anything changed in your child’s life? Has the family moved recently? Have they started a new school or gotten a new sibling? Talking to your child about these changes will help them process the new events and hopefully reduce some uncertainty.

With regard to night terrors, they are unlike nightmares, i.e.  kids will have no idea that it’s happening. Having night terrors usually doesn’t mean your child has a serious psychological issue or medical problem, so don’t worry. More likely, night terrors are a byproduct of stress, lack of sleep, new medication, or changes in the sleep environment, all of which are adjustable.

Symptoms of night terrors

  • Thrashing around in bed, kicking covers off
  • Screaming in distress
  • Breathing heavily and a high heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Sitting upright in bed
  • Moving around the house (night terrors can happen in conjunction with sleepwalking).

Other issues that may arise are:

  • Sleepwalking
  • Bedwetting

These behaviours are often related to stress (if the child has already been toilet trained); medication and more serious issues (including abuse) may also be factors in encouraging these disruptions to your child’s sleep.

How to Address Your Child’s Sleep Issues

Parents can help themselves to getting to the bottom of their child’s sleep issues by simply keeping a sleep diary for several weeks – you will either start to observe patterns and habits that can be changed – or, if required, have information to present to your doctor, if that is required.

·Maintaining Boundaries around Bed Time

If you start establishing a routine where previously there was none, don’t be surprised if your child resists. Rather than leaving your child to “cry it out”, however, you can gradually wean them of your presence. This way your child will learn to soothe themselves rather than always relying on you. Avoid giving them too much attention when they complain about going to bed or other resistant behaviour.

·Give Positive Reinforcement

For older children, preschool aged and up, setting up a reward system, like a sticker chart, might provide an incentive for good sleep behaviour. It’s most effective if they can earn a small reward immediately, like a sticker first thing in the morning. More frequent smaller rewards also generally encourage better results than fewer larger ones.


Sources: AFP (Australian Family Physician) and Health Guide.