Everyone has nights when they don’t sleep well. But, if your child isn’t sleeping most of the time, it can affect their concentration, mood, behaviour, and general energy levels. Getting enough sleep is important.
There are a range of different issues that could affect your child’s sleep:
Difficulty getting to sleep, waking very early, or getting back to sleep if you wake in the night are all signs of insomnia. Children struggling with insomnia may constantly feel tired and that sleep hasn’t recharged or refreshed them.
Nightmares and night terrors
Nightmares and night terrors can affect the quality of sleep your child gets. Children who struggle with them may be anxious about falling asleep, which can lead to insomnia.
Night terrors are like nightmares, but they happen during deep sleep. Children often have little or no memory they’ve happened. Night terrors feel vivid and it can be difficult to wake up from them. Your child may have an increased heartbeat, start sweating, scream or cry out.
If your child isn’t sleeping and wakes up in the night, sleep hormones could still be in their muscles, preventing them from speaking or moving. It only lasts for a few seconds to minutes and isn’t harmful, but can be extremely frightening and lead to anxiety around sleeping.
Although sleepwalking is usually harmless, you may worry your child could injure themselves as they wander around, or even leave the house. Sleepwalking can disrupt sleep and affect how rested your child feels in the morning.
Reasons why your child isn’t sleeping
Usually difficulties around sleeping are caused by stress and anxiety. Troubling thoughts can cause insomnia. Your child may experience them when they are feeling worried about something like exams, moving home, or starting a new school. They can also be a sign that your child is experiencing bullying.
Children with mental health difficulties are more likely to experience sleep problems and have anxieties about sleep. Trauma can also cause sleep difficulties.
How can you help if your child isn’t sleeping?
There are lots of practical ways you can help your child develop healthy sleeping habits. Sometimes, just making a few minor changes can have an enormous impact on the quality of your child’s sleep.
1: Sleep environment
- Use blackout blinds or heavy curtains to block early morning sunlight
- Keep electronic devices out of bedrooms
- Make the bedroom a quiet space
- Keep the temperature comfortably cool
- Some child like white noise or ambient sounds
- Experiment to find out what works best for your child
2: Bedtime routine
- Have a consistent bedtime
- Avoiding sugary drinks and snacks, or caffeine before bedtime
- Turn off screens at least an hour before bed
- Younger children may enjoy the “3Bs” routine of bath, book, and bed
- Older children could read, or do something calming and creative before they sleep
- Remove any pressure around sleeping as your child could pick up on your anxiety
- Look at deep, slow breathing exercises they could use when in bed
- Teach them to focus on each part of their body in turn and consciously relax it
- Talk through any problems or worries before bedtime — young children may like to tell a worry doll what is wrong
4: Diet and exercise
- Cut out sugar and caffeine in the evenings
- Have a healthy balanced diet
- Reduce drinks near bedtime so they don’t need to use the toilet at night
- Do more physical exercise to tire them out during the day
- Avoid exercise close to bedtime
- Get outside into the sunlight during the day
If your child is struggling with sleep, you may be tempted to let them nap or sleep in at the weekends to catch up. However, this can further affect sleep problems. Keep naps to an absolute minimum, well away from bedtime, and limit them to around 30 minutes.
With older children who struggle to sleep, rather than lying awake for hours at their usual bedtime, you could try delaying the time they go to bed until they feel tired enough to sleep.
In the morning, wake them up at the usual time. While they’re spending less time in bed, they will be spending more of the time sleeping. This approach will help them establish a better sleeping pattern.
Keeping a sleep diary
If your child is routinely struggling to sleep, it’s a good idea to keep a sleep diary. A sleep diary helps you spot patterns and problems and provides a useful record if you need further support for sleeping from your GP.
What to include in your sleep diary:
- Time they went to bed and got up
- Total hours of sleep
- Quality of sleep — they could score out of 10 or use smiley faces
- Any waking up at night
- Nightmares/ night terrors/ sleepwalking/ sleep paralysis in the night
- Exercise during the day
- Food and drink consumed that day
- General feelings and mood
You might keep a sleep diary for your young child, but older children can keep them for themself. Create a simple template for them to follow and give them a diary to record their sleep notes every morning when they first wake up.
Most sleep issues in children are caused by a worry that will pass over time. However, some children will need further support to help them with a specific sleep difficulty. If you are concerned about your child’s sleep, look at the NHS Live Well website and contact your GP for further advice.
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