Why is my child not sleeping? Common sleep problems with kids and how to solve them

Posted on 24/08/2021 by Olivia Lowry
Room to Grow, Sleep, The Sleep Charity

In this blog, we catch up with Lisa Artis, Deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity. The Sleep Charity campaigns to improve sleep support and access to high quality information, raise awareness of the value of a good night’s sleep and promote understanding around the complexities of sleep. We asked Lisa about the most common sleep problems with kids and how to solve them, for an expert opinion.

The Sleep Charity logo with a photo of Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity.

When children grow at such an alarming rate, they need a good healthy night’s sleep – lack of good quality sleep will make them irritable, un-co-operative and unable to concentrate at school.

It’s important that parents and the children understand that good sleep is as vital to overall health and wellbeing as a sensible diet and plenty of exercise.

Around 40% of children have sleep issues and this rises to 80% if a child has a diagnosis of SEND. And if a child isn’t getting enough sleep, then the parents probably aren’t either – causing increasing stress among the whole family.

A decent night’s sleep will help children to do better at school, allow them to react more quickly to situations, have a more developed memory, learn more effectively and solve problems. Plus it will make them less susceptible to colds and other minor ailments, less grumpy and better behaved. 

Why can’t they sleep?

Don’t expect children to go to sleep immediately – after all, most adults don’t – and they should be allowed to read or play quietly until they drop off. It’s still promoting a relaxing environment. If your child can’t sleep don’t be tempted to get them back out of bed, instead encourage them to be quiet and lie down.  

Try not to get cross with your child if they’re refusing to go to sleep. This only aggravates the situation and doesn’t aid the relaxing atmosphere before bed. This isn’t to say you should let them get away with being troublesome – be firm and in control. Children get out of bed or shout for a parent for many reasons – some because they genuinely need attention like needing the toilet or not feeling well.  Below are some of the reasons why children don’t want to go to sleep or stay in bed.

Overtired

Young children don’t know when they are tired and therefore become overtired easily and demonstrate this by becoming fractious, tearful, clingy and bad tempered. Parents/carers need to be aware of roughly how much sleep their child needs and keep to a consistent bed time and wake up time. As a general rule, toddlers need around 12 hours of sleep a night; children aged 4-6 years old – 10.5-11.5 hours; 6-12 year olds – 10 hours; and teenagers – around eight to nine hours.

Self-Settling

The biggest difficulty is often that children can’t settle themselves to sleep at the start of the night and get out of bed to seek out a parent.  Some children also need a parent in bed with them or rocked in a pushchair or even driving around in a car to be able to fall asleep.  Once they come up through the sleep cycle to a point of a partial awakening and they find the conditions have changed they need attention.  Teaching children to soothe themselves to sleep can be done gently and gradually.

Hungry or too full

Children who are over hungry or too full of food (especially the wrong type of food) will not settle and sleep well. Plan a bedtime snack and a drink as part of the wind down routine but make sure it’s something suitable like porridge or even a banana smoothie.

Too thirsty

Mild dehydration can affect sleep. Also the wrong type of drinks before bed will not help achieve a good night’s sleep. Stick to a glass of milk or water.

Not comfy

A new bed with a supportive mattress is a must for a growing child; an old, lumpy mattress is not likely to be conducive to quality sleep. An unsupportive bed can result in aches and pains leading to problems in adulthood. Many parents think nothing of spending a fortune on shoes for a child’s growing feet but scrimp on a mattress. Also make the bedroom a welcoming place – never send kids to bed as a sanction.

Being frightened or anxious

Nightmares and night terrors can leave children distressed and less likely to go to bed. Children may also want a parent with them during the night.  They can be caused by watching a scary movie, worries or anxieties or strange shadows in the bedrooms. Stories normalising this fear can be helpful as can sleeping with a parent’s t-shirt. It’s a good idea to lie in your kids bed in the dark and look around the room. A lovely wall hanging may look quite scary once the lights are turned off.

Overstimulated

Children who are overstimulated in the hours before bed (ie active play, use of technology) struggle to settle down and sleep. Make the hour before bed a calming, relaxing time. Switch off gadgets and look for good hand-eye coordination activities like colouring, jigsaws. Try to stick to a regular wind down routine and a set bedtime.

Bedwetting

Lots of young children wet the bed at night and it is perfectly normal and common-place for children under seven to still not be dry through the night. It’s important to reassure your child they haven’t done anything wrong if they have an accident in bed. Try to avoid drinking too close to bedtime and making sure your child has a last week before going to sleep.

Not Sleepy

If your child is genuinely not tired, you may be putting them to bed too early. Sleep patterns do change as children grow and develop. Consider moving bedtime by 15-30 minutes but remember to keep a positive bedtime routine in place in the hour before.

A young boy quietly reads a book in a single bed, tucked under the duvet.

For more information, visit The Sleep Charity: https://thesleepcharity.org.uk/

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