Children sleep poorly for a variety of reasons. Understanding your child’s sleep problems is the first step to a better night’s sleep for the whole family.
When children have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, not only are their health and well-being compromised, so too is the ability of the whole family to rest, relax, get along and be productive. But parents need to discover precisely what the sleep problem is before they know how to resolve it. There are several areas of life that parents can examine to understand their child’s particular sleep problem.
Physical and Logistical Challenges to Sleep
The first line of defense with a child’s sleep problem is to check whether physical or logistical issues might be causing wakefulness. A doctor’s check-up is always a smart move to determine whether there is a chronic condition or temporary illness contributing to the problem. But even if the doctor cannot identify any organic issues that might contribute to problems sleeping, there could be other physical or environmental barriers to rest. For example:
A child is often hungry or thirsty at bedtime or in the middle of the night.
He feels too hot or too cold.
Her pajamas or bedding are uncomfortable – perhaps itchy or too tight.
He has a wet or dirty diaper, or has wet the bed.
The bedroom is too loud, too quiet, too dark, too light or otherwise too stimulating.
Even daytime habits that are not clearly connected with sleep can impact many children’s ability to sleep well. For example, sleep problems may occur because of too little exercise or outside time; too much “screen time” (TV, video games or computer), especially late in the day; highly energetic activity within an hour of bedtime; and inconsistent sleep times, wake times and related routines.
Eating too soon before bedtime may also interrupt sleep patterns for some children, as may too little “face time” with important people in his or her life. A simple schedule adjustment may be all that is needed for children to feel good enough to fall asleep easily.
Emotional and Developmental Challenges to Sleep
Emotions that grown-ups have learned to manage are still new and overwhelming to young children. Parents should not underestimate the power of feelings to block children from healthy sleep. If a child is afraid, unhappy, angry, worried or excited, the intensity of the feeling alone may be enough to give a child sleep problems.
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Similarly, some children have highly active mental lives. They may end each day with their minds racing with the rush of new experiences and information. On the other hand, they may be preoccupied with or ruminating about something troublesome. These children may benefit from time in the evening to talk out whatever is on their mind – thoughts or feelings, good or bad.
The basic personality temperament can also influence sleep needs. More extroverted children require more outside stimulation, whereas introverted ones need more down time. If children aren’t getting the amount of internal or external input they need each day, their energy levels may be thrown off and lead to sleep problems. Even natural variances in energy levels may mean one child has an easier time sleeping than another.
Development may also contribute to children’s sleep problems. It may be that the child has simply not learned yet how to fall asleep or stay asleep on her own. Perhaps she does not know how to self-soothe, or she is going through a phase of heightened separation anxiety. Some children’s sleep problems are due to preoccupation with mastering a new skill such as walking or talking. And very young children (0-4 months) are simply not equipped to sustain sleep for long periods.
Family and Life Challenges to Sleep
Some people assume that children live carefree lives. But even babies can be anxious, and energies in the family or daycare can create sleep problems. One likely scenario is that the child’s attachment with a parent needs repair. If a conflict has occurred, it is a good idea to talk it through with the child before bedtime to provide reassurance that he is still loved, valued and understood.
Another common scenario is that the child is going through a major life change – a new sibling, home, school or daycare – that has her feeling “off.” Though time may be the best remedy in this situation, it may help to assist the child to express her feelings about the change: Parents can give a child time to talk about feelings; ask her to draw pictures of her experience; or help her create a storybook about the change.
The most difficult challenges that could lead to children’s sleep problems include a recent crisis, as well as ongoing stress, anxiety, anger or abuse in the home, school or daycare environment. A sleep problem rooted in these issues often needs to be addressed in partnership with a mental health professional. If any kind of abuse is occurring (or suspected), parents should call 1-800-4-A-CHILD in the U.S. and Canada, or a similar resource in another country.
Fit the Solution to the Problem
Children’s sleep problems are not always resolved by a direct approach to the issue of sleep. For some children, small adjustments are all that’s needed, while others require large changes in routine, environment or emotional processing. When parents know what the sleep problem is, they are much better able to work with their children to find the best solution – so the whole family can get a good night’s rest.
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Pantley, Elizabeth . The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Waldburger, Jennifer and Spivack, Jill. The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep from Birth to Age 5. Deerfield Beach, Florida: HCI, 2007.
West, Kim with Kenen, Joanne . Good Night, Sleep Tight. NY: Vanguard Press, 2006.