5 Solutions to Your Child’s Sleep Problems

Sleeping ChildSleep is not only important for your child’s rest and rejuvenation, good sleep is essential to healthy development. Sleep problems affect a child’s mood, ability to cope, and academic performance. Sufficient sleep can promote emotional resilience and keener senses.

Quality vs. Quantity

Sleep scientists tell us that preschoolers need 11 to 13 hours of sleep each night, while children ages 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours. Making sure your child gets enough sleep can be a demanding task, but it’s one that reaps almost instant rewards. Well-rested children learn better, play better, and even sleep better the next night.

However, sleep is gauged by both quantity and quality. Scientists view our nightly slumber in terms of the stages of brain-wave activity and physiology that punctuate the course of a night’s sleep. These stages progress in predictable patterns known as sleep cycles. Sleep quality is a way of evaluating the health of our sleep cycles.

Sleep Cycle

A typical sleep cycle starts when your child feels drowsy, resulting in light sleep. Next, he or she enters a longer period of deep sleep, which is followed by a shorter period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. He or she dreams during REM sleep, and then the cycle begins again, starting with drowsiness or very light sleep. Your child will go through four to six (or more) sleep cycles during the night.

If his or her sleep is disturbed mid-cycle, and/or he or she has incomplete sleep cycles, or if he or she sleeps too lightly or wakes too easily, his or her sleep quality will be poor, independent of number of hours of sleep. This may lead to mood swings and/or difficulty with concentration, and over time, long-term health can be threatened.

Sleep Solutions

Here are five strategies that may help your child get the quantity and quality of sleep he or she needs:

1. Dim the lights.

Surprisingly, it’s not simply seeing light that wakes us in the morning. In fact, it is a specific wavelength of blue light that starts the process. Sunlight, as well as the light emitted by fluorescent bulbs, television, and computer and smart phone screens, contains blue wavelengths that trigger a waking response in our brains.

Exposing your child to these artificial light sources during the hour before bed can make falling asleep harder, and diminish the quality of sleep by curtailing the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Even nonfluorescent lights can trigger this effect when the source is overhead, so avoiding the use of ceiling lights and tall floor lamps can help.

In place of watching nighttime TV and movies, have your child listen to stories. The tradition of reading bedtime stories out loud is perfect. If you are not in the mood to read, try an electronic book or gentle music.

For an older child who uses a computer or other electronics at night for homework, consider using an app or program that both dims screens at sunset and adjusts the output spectrum to include very little blue. The app will typically return the screen to its normal color mode and brightness at sunrise. The app described is shareware called f.lux.

2. Provide a calm environment.

A calming, soothing bedroom environment can be remarkably effective in helping your child fall asleep. To create a peaceful environment, reduce visual stimuli. If you are thinking of painting or redecorating, try using calm or soft colors. Set lamps on low bedside tables. Reducing clutter can help, too.

To provide a calm environment when siblings share a room, try a white-noise machine, or, if necessary, remove one child until the other can sleep well on his or her own.

If sleep is especially difficult to attain, stricter measures may be needed. Associating the bed with sleep can make a big difference and change how your child relates with his or her sleep environment. This entails pairing the bed with the activity of sleep, similar to how Ivan Pavlov paired a bell with meal time in his famous dog experiments.

Pairing the bed with sleep means that your child must use his or her bed only for sleeping—not to watch television in, eat in, or even play on. That way, whether he or she sees or lies in bed, his or her body will know the bed is meant for sleep. If sleep continues to be elusive, it may be time to seek the help of a licensed mental health or medical professional.

3. Establish a routine and stick with it.

A bedtime routine means consistently doing the same activities before bed, at or very close to the same time, every night. The activities can be as simple as teeth-brushing and pajama donning, as typical as a bedtime story, or as elaborate as a scented bath, followed by soothing music and a back massage. Whether simple or elaborate, a consistently applied routine will help your child have an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep.

A sleep routine also supports the circadian clock in your child’s brain. This is because over time your child’s brain associates the time of day and bedtime prep activities with sleep, so when the routine is started, the brain gears up for sleep while he or she completes the bedtime tasks.

One word of caution: a bedtime routine can be easier to establish than maintain. It helps if everyone in the household is on board. To set the stage for success, create a sleep schedule that can be consistently manageable, even if a parent is absent or the child is away from home.

An optimal routine starts the countdown between 30 and 60 minutes before bedtime. Timing is basic to routines, and while some flexibility is great, keeping bedtime at 9 p.m. or earlier is strongly recommended for children 12 and younger.

4. Substitute soda or hot chocolate with chamomile tea or warm milk.

What goes into your child’s body can impact how he or she sleeps, and understanding how different foods impact sleep can have life-long benefits.

Chamomile tea and warm milk each have ingredients that promote relaxation. Even if your child can fall asleep after drinking caffeine, his or her sleep cycles may not be as complete.

Teach your child to understand and respect his or her body. A healthy body supports healthy sleep. For example, he or she may need exercise during the day in order to sleep well at night.

Also, naps count. If your child still needs a nap, to have real value the nap must be at the right time. An optimal duration and time for napping is about 30 minutes between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Avoid napping between 7 a.m. and noon or after 6 p.m.

5. Teach your child how to self-soothe and relax.

Children get stressed too, and worries or tension can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. In part, this is because stress is correlated with high cortisol levels, and high cortisol can inhibit sleep. However, when your child’s body moves into a relaxed state, cortisol levels reduce.

A healthy bedtime routine can reduce anxiety associated with sleep. Soothing and relaxation exercises don’t need to take a lot of time out of the routine. Adding just five to 10 minutes of a relaxing activity can make a difference. Relaxation techniques can include a muscle tension/relaxation exercise, a guided visualization, or listening to gentle music.

Massage and similar modalities can also help (for some children, a back rub is always welcome). Likewise, warm baths have long been believed to help induce asleep, and they’re a great part of the bedtime routine.

There’s another benefit to bedtime baths. They’re not only a way to keep your child clean and cozy, science has shown that a result of bathing is a drop in core body temperature, which helps to start the sleep cycle. An ideal bath time is first on the routine, at least an hour prior to sleep, so that your child’s body has time to cool down before he or she hits the sheets.

Research has demonstrated that a lavender scent can be effective at promoting relaxation, and thus works as a sleep aid. Try a drop of lavender essential oil in the bath water, or place a few on drops on the shower floor (scent will rise).

References:

  1. Abbott, S. M., Arnold, J. M., Chang, Q., Miao, H., Ota, N., Cecala, C., … Gillette, M. (2013, August). Signals from the Brainstem Sleep/Wake Centers Regulate Behavioral Timing via the Circadian Clock. PLoS ONE, 8(8), 1-11.
  2. BBC Worldwide Ltd. (2009). Films on Demand collection. 10 things you should know about sleep.
  3. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 2, Sleep Physiology. RetrievedAugust 16, 2014, from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19956/
  4. Meltzer, L. (2010, Jul-Sep). Key procedural elements for the treatment of behavioral insomnia of childhood. Chart. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 8(3), 177.
  5. Mindell, J. A., Meltzer, L. J., Carskadon, M. A., Chervin, R. D. (2009, August). Developmental Aspects of Sleep Hygiene: Findings from the 2004 National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll. Sleep Medicine, 10(7), 771-779.
  6. National Sleep Foundation (2014). Children and Sleep. Retrieved August 13, 2014, from http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/children-and-sleep

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, DCC, therapist in Lafayette, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 10 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Brock

    Brock

    August 25th, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    Our 11 year old was battling some very real sleep issues last school year in that she never could go to sleep at night and then would have a horrible time having to get up early the next morning.

    We cut way down on the visual and mental stimulation that she has at night now. She has to to have the tv and computer off at least an hour before bedtime, and she can either hang out with us or read until it is bedtime. This way ahe os nice and relaxed when it comes time to needing to go to sleep and not still hyped up on all of the visual stimulation from the screen time.

  • Tilson

    Tilson

    August 25th, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    We as parents have to teach our children to be good sleepers. This means being the meanie sometimes and making them go to bed before they are ready; making them turn off the electronics when they are trying to get to sleep.; letting them learn to self soothe and become comfortable with putting themselves to sleep. I know that there are people who think that this is being mean but I see it as helping them establish good sleep habits that can help them for a number of years, far beyond just childhood.

  • lisa

    lisa

    August 25th, 2014 at 10:45 PM

    I have a three yr old she has quiet time half hour before bed which us lying in bed with a story but she will always wake up between 5 am and 5.40 am if I put her to sleep later she still gets up at that time she is having temper were she us so tired in the day she goes to bed at 7pm

  • tolly

    tolly

    August 26th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    If the house is not calm then how can you expect the kids to get calm and go to sleep? Staying in a pattern or a routine can also help because it establishes the guidelines about sleep, what time etc.

  • Vale

    Vale

    August 26th, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    We have always had a set bed schedule, and did not really veer too much from theate ven on weekends or school breaks. I just think that when you can maintain some sense of consistency then that is when the kids are happier. I even have a 12 year old who does not like to spend the night friends too much because she just isn’t into the stay up all night thing. She has always been so regimented with her bed time that it is hard to get her to see now that it is sometimes ok to stay up all night giggling with friends.

  • Kate

    Kate

    August 27th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    Look at their diets and for many you will see a real clue to why there are so many sleep problems. How many sodas and other forms of caffeine are they having every day? What time are we having dinner? How late are we staying up mindlessly snacking in front of the tv or computer? There are so many preventable things that we can eliminate that would help any of us get a better night’s rest but for many it will be those things that we can all find very difficult to give up.

  • Maggie W

    Maggie W

    August 28th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    It almost seems like there are a lot of parents who want to negotiate with their kids

    Why?

    You are the adult, you know what they need, bedtime should not be negotiable

  • Danna

    Danna

    August 28th, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    The long and the short of it is that lack of sleep is harmful to any of us, especially children who are the least equipped to deal with it. If you talk to any educator I think that you will hear them say time and again that the biggest problems that they face in the classroom would come from children who do not get enough rest or quality rest at night. Parents always want to point the finger at teachers when things don’t click but so many problems could be resolved just getting them enough rest at night.

  • sonia

    sonia

    August 30th, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    I’ve got the answer!! I know what the problem is because if you think about it this is a relatively new type of problem that we never used to even have to think about or talk about. We are not wearing kids out enough to make them sleepy. Many of them never go outside and run around and play like we did when we were growing up. How tired can they really be when many sit around all day and stare at a screen? This isn’t good for them and we all know that and it comes back to bite us at bedtime when we wnat them to lay down and go to sleep but they have done nothing all day long that would even stand a chance of making them tired! Change their play patterns and you could easily remedy that situation.

  • theodore

    theodore

    August 31st, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    If you are having problems with your child sleeping then it could also be a good idea to solicit the help of a pediatrician to help you out. They may heave some things that they could recommend or they may even have a sleep clinic that specializes in young children who could see if there was anything internal going on that could be prohibiting sleep. Anything that yu can do and as quickly as you can would probably be a pretty good idea to try. Kids and adults all get pretty cranky if you don’t get enough sleep and if it goes on long enough then it can start to complicate your physical health too.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.