How to help kids sleep better at night
Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for mental and physical development because continued poor sleep can soon start to affect relationships, work and family life. For children, it is vastly the same. My eldest suffers from poor sleep due to anxiety, and it has taken us about eight years to find a routine that works for him and which helps him to get enough sleep at night so that he can function during the day. Every child is different of course – some children find it easy to fall asleep at the drop of a hat, like my youngest, and some children, like my eldest, either fight sleep or struggle to wind down, despite trying everything in their power to settle.
In this article, I’m going to share with you not only why sleep is important but my tips and tricks on how to help kids sleep better at night.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is the activity in which your body recovers and re-energises at night so that you can continue to function at your best every day. Sleep also promotes a healthy brain and balanced emotional wellbeing, as well as optimised physical health and increased concentration. You can improve your memory and get the most out of your day because you feel more energetic and active after a good night’s sleep.
A child’s sleep pattern becomes a problem if it is a problem for you or your child. If you are spending hours comforting your child at night because they can’t sleep, then you both are not getting the required time to recharge your batteries at night. Even if it’s difficult to be apart at bedtime, it is important to notice that you are in fact experiencing a sleep problem, and once sorted, you will both feel more alert and happier, as well as enjoy each other’s company when you have both slept well.
How does sleep cycles work?
At night we experience different levels of sleep which we call REM and Non-REM sleep cycles. They are both different stages of sleep that are required to keep us healthy. Below is a diagram from The Sleep Council that shows an example of how these sleep cycles occur.
“We get our deep sleep towards the beginning of the night and our lighter sleep in the early hours of the morning,”The Sleep Council
After each sleep cycle which is usually around 90 minutes (less in babies), we experience a partial awakening. Generally, we would just turn over and fall asleep, however, if anything has changed then that change would cause us to wake up. Therefore, it is essential to keep a child’s sleep conditions consistent throughout the night. A child who is rocked to sleep will likely wake up at each cycle to be then rocked back to sleep. Likewise, if a child has learned to fall asleep on their parents then that is the condition they will look for to be able to go back to sleep. Thus, we need to change these habits and help them self soothe so that when they do wake up, they can settle themselves back to sleep again without needing their parents.
What time should children go to bed
Some children require more sleep than others, and some need less. Remember that if your child is not getting enough sleep, then they may act like they are not tired, when in fact, they may be overtired. I have created an infographic below which shows the recommended guidelines for how much sleep a child should get depending on their age (click on the image to expand – and pin to share!)
Signs that your child is getting poor sleep
Apart from being overtired and seemingly finding a ‘second wind’, there are other symptoms which you can look out for which indicate poor sleep. These are:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slurred speech
- Nodding off during the day
- Trouble remembering things
Sleep problems in children
Some children find it very difficult to go to sleep, and this could be down to underlying and undiagnosed issues. Below are some reasons why children may find it hard to go to sleep.
Night terrors often happen to children between the ages of 4 and 12 years old and are different from nightmares or dreams related to anxiety. Night terrors tend to occur about an hour or two after falling asleep, and the first sign is that your child seems to be awake but is screaming uncontrollably. Despite looking like they’re awake, your child is in fact sleeping, and they may not be able to recognise who you are. They will be unable to communicate and are probably confused so it will be difficult reassure and comfort them. It is advised that you try not to wake then but sit with them until the night terror passes, which is usually after five minutes. It is, of course, distressing to see your child go through this, but they won’t remember the night terror in the morning, and they generally grow out of this stage.
Nightmares can be caused by worries, nasty accidents, bullying or by any kind of abuse. Children can usually remember their dream and would probably need to be comforted to get back to sleep. You can assist your child by encouraging them to talk about their dream and if it helps them, to draw a picture as well. This way you can find out the cause of the upset and work out the type of help or support your child needs. My eldest suffered from anxiety after suffering from a few external environmental issues, and we got to the bottom of his worries by talking about it with him and attending a Multi-Family Anxiety Group session which provided us with great tips to help him settle at night.
Waking through the night
When a child wakes through the night, it can be tiring and destructive for the whole family. Check to see if there is anything that is causing them to be upset or unsettled, for example:
- Are they unwell?
- Are they too hot or too cold?
- Are they worried about something?
- Do they have a wet/dirty nappy/bed?
Try to let your child resettle themselves to sleep, but if they’re really distressed, then a cuddle may calm them down. But avoid letting them sleep in your arms or in your bed as these actions may kickstart the bad habits again. Make them realise slowly but surely that their bed is the right place to sleep on their own and that nothing will harm or upset them when they’re sleeping. If they’re thirsty, then try limiting liquids to just water as milk and juice contain sugar. Avoid giving too much otherwise they may wake in the night because of a full bladder.
Your child wants to sleep in your bed
Some parents don’t mind having their child sleep in the bed with them, but if you’re trying to settle your child to sleep by themselves and help them sleep better at night, then taking this approach is counterintuitive. When s/he cries, and you take them into your bed, you are developing a habit that will be hard to break later. When your child is older and bigger, it may not be quite as enjoyable having them share the same bed as you. Again if your child wakes and tries to get into your bed, soothe them and then take them back so they can settle again in their own bed. Attaching a bell to your door will let you know when they come in at night if you’re generally asleep when this happens. The aim here is to teach your child to sleep on their own, and it is essential to not forget this ultimate goal.
You can encourage them further by providing them with a safe haven in their bedroom – a place which they can personalise and treat as their own and nobody else’s. Customising the bed and furniture can motivate them to want to go back to their bed when they wake up. If your kids share a bed then children’s bunk beds may be the most suitable for the bedroom so there is more space for other furniture. My sons have their own room, but each has a bunk bed which they have customised into their own. Check out my eldest’s new bunk bed below from Room to Grow which he treats as his safe place now, in turn, stopping the frequent wake-up calls during the night.
Sleeping too much during the day
After the age of three, most children won’t need to nap during the day anymore. If your child is still napping during the day, start reducing their naps otherwise they will not be tired enough to go to sleep early in the evening. Travelling to and from school can be a time when some children nap so try to keep your child awake with snacks or activities.
Sometimes children have sensory issues that impact their sleep at night. For example, if your child is sensitive to noise, then they are likely to be affected by noise at night. The sound made by the house or central heating can be enough to wake up a child with sensory issues. To combat this, block out the sounds with some white/pink noise or music. Some children are sensitive to touch and will remove their covers at night time. As a result, they can become too cold and wake up during the night. Combat this sensory issue by using a thinner sheet and increasing the room temperature slightly, so they are kept warm at night.
How to help kids sleep better at night
Establishing a good routine
Like any habit, sleep habits need to be learned. It is essential that you manage your child’s environment and their behaviour before settling them to sleep. Try to look for situations that may interfere with their sleep and then you can follow simple tips that will help them get more rest at night, in turn promoting daytime alertness and treating recognised sleep disorders.
Ensure that your child learns the difference between day and night by providing a lovely peaceful atmosphere with dull light at bedtime, with calm voices and less contact and conversation. Place your child down when they are drowsy but awake, as your ultimate goal is to teach them to fall asleep without any assistance. Some children may want you with them in their room while they settle and you can gradually remove yourself by following steps to remove the habit without causing further anxiety to your child. You can find more information here about how to break the vicious circle and expose your child to sleeping on their own in small manageable steps.
What helps sleep
Changing behaviours and rewarding good behaviour
Children will start to learn that different behaviours will lead to different outcomes. They will begin to link these behaviours and anticipate what will happen next. During sleep, if you consistently run to hug your child when they cry at night, then they will expect all their cries to end up with you hugging them. This is because you are ‘rewarding’ your child with your attention. And, don’t forget that even your irritable and tired attention is a reward too! So, when you are trying to encourage good sleep, start by rewarding them through simple steps. If your child gets into bed, reward them for that. Keep an eye on when they are doing something positive so you can reward them straight away. Once the behaviour is well-established, you can slowly start to reduce the rewards until they stop. Try to ignore difficult behaviour as well and remember that even punishing your child is giving them attention, so you want to minimise attention as much as possible as this will be less rewarding for your child. Once you give out a reward, remember to not take it away. Most children will feel rewarded when you show that you are pleased with their efforts through cuddles, snacks, stickers and/or rewards charts. Again, start with small goals like going into their bedroom when their parents ask them then expand to settling to bed and sleeping once parents have left the bedroom.
Routine is essential for sleep as it conditions your child to know when bedtime is due. A step by step routine will teach your child the order of events that will lead up to bedtime. A short routine may include a bath, putting on pyjamas, brushing teeth and reading a story and/or listening to music. Choose activities that are relaxing and calming – avoid lively games, and technology as these activities inhibit sleep. Using soft furniture like bean bag chairs will help your child to feel warm and cosy during bedtime. The below bean bag chairs from Just4Kids are perfect for the nighttime routine as your child can read happily and comfortably before you initiate going to bed.
Try to keep your routine to around 20 – 30 minutes with a definite endpoint, which may be turning the light off or saying goodnight. A goodnight phrase like “Goodnight, sleep tight” if repeated every night can be a signal to the child that it is time to settle for bed. If your child needs more or less sleep than others, then you will need to accept this as part of their character. If you put them to bed too early, they will lie restless, which may increase their anxiety. If you put them to bed too late, then they will be overstimulated and irritable.
Keep consistent bed and wake up times, so that their body clocks will condition naturally. Try to be firm with your routine, so your child knows you mean business, but don’t shout or raise the anxiety levels at bedtime as this is counteractive behaviour. Keep things calm and boring at night time, so the only fun thing to do at night is to go to sleep.
Keep the environment relaxed and comfortable
Make sure the place that your child goes to sleep is at a comfortable temperature, and it is a relaxed space to be in.
Remove screens and technology from the bedrooms
TVs, computers and even phones are too tempting and will stimulate the brain which will make it harder to relax.
Getting plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day helps your child to settle to sleep easier at night, but make sure it’s not too close to bedtime, or they won’t have enough time to wind down. Activities like running, walking, scooting to and from school and/or riding a bike during the day, can help kids to tire themselves and prepare their bodies for deep sleep later in the evening.
Avoid sugary food and drinks at night
Caffeine in chocolate, sweets and sugary drinks can keep the brain up and more alert at night time. Avoid eating and snacking for two hours before bedtime as digestion could keep your child up too. If they are hungry and need a snack, then crackers are good with a little bit of warm milk, as these foods induce a chemical called tryptophan which helps you to rest. Make sure they drink plenty of water during the day, so they don’t ask for much at night – this will help with reducing night-time toilet visits!
Sleep aids for kids
Blackout blinds/curtains and comfortable mattresses
Kitting your child’s bedroom out with blackout blinds or curtains will help to block out the light coming from outside and settle your child to sleep at bedtime. If you don’t have any in the bedroom, you can find some blackout curtains at Julian Charles or below lovely blackout blinds from Terrys Blinds to help your child go to sleep in a dark room, especially during the summer when the sky gets dark much later.
Aim to change your mattress when your child experiences significant growth spurts so that they have enough room to move about in and feel comfortable. The right mattress is also vital for correct support of growing bones and muscles as well as holding the spine in a proper position when laying down. Don’t buy second hand/hand me down mattresses as they do not provide the right comfort for growing children and they could present a health and safety hazard. Opt for hypoallergenic, ergonomic mattresses to avoid the onset of disorders like asthma, eczema or rhinitis.
Relaxation techniques like massage, warm baths, and mindfulness are great ways to help your child feel more relaxed before sleep. Yoga music at night allows children to go to sleep at night and once established, you can slowly start to take the music element away.
Melatonin for kids
Melatonin is a hormone that we make naturally in our bodies when it gets dark. We produce it at night time because it helps us go to sleep. This is why it helps to put your child in a dark environment and dim the lights in the run-up to bedtime so that they can settle themselves to sleep. Screen activities like watching TV or playing on a computer can inhibit melatonin production which is why it is best to avoid these activities before bed. Some children, particularly those in the autistic spectrum, are prescribed melatonin to help them sleep. If this is the case for your child then c
Changing your child’s sleep time
If you are trying to move your child’s bedtime to an earlier or later time, then a bedtime routine can help. Avoid changing the time drastically and opt for a gradual approach by moving the time to around 15 to 20 minutes every night. Children who fall asleep late or early need to have their body clocks shifted. Below are some options for teaching your kids how to get to sleep early (or later):
Create a set sleep time for kids every day – including weekends
Some parents let their children fall asleep late or sleep-in, generally during the weekends, which is not a good idea as this late bedtime bleeds onto the next evening. Try to have a fixed get up time for every day in the week and help your child settle by providing a lot of natural light in the morning and toning down that light from late afternoon onwards. Encourage your child to eat their breakfast by natural light, so in the garden or by a window, or even walking to school etc. Sunglasses are suitable for avoiding bright light when it’s getting late in the day (and also healthy for their eyes!)
If you have a child that falls asleep and wakes up too early, then you can reverse the advice, by exposing your child to bright light in the late afternoon/early evening and avoiding light in the mornings. As you gradually move your child’s bedtime routine later by 15 minutes, try to delay their breakfast time too.
Helping your child to settle by themselves is one of the best skills you can teach them as this technique will run through to adulthood as well. It’s important not to feel guilty (which we all feel) when you are not allowing your child to sleep on you because in the long run you are eliminating future problems and creating a super resilient child who will be able to self-sooth and sleep independently which will ultimately improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
If you have any comments, questions and/or tips on how to help your child sleep better, please do not hesitate to comment below.
- Here to help you with sleep problems, Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust – https://www.hct.nhs.uk/m
- Encouraging good sleep habits in children with learning disabilities, Research Autism, Dr Paul Montgomery, University of Oxford, Dr Lucy Wiggs, Oxford Brookes University – http://www.researchautism.net/
- The good-night guide for children, The Sleep Council – https://sleepcouncil.org.uk/
- The Children’s Sleep Charity – www.theschildrenssleepcharity.org.uk
- The Lullaby Trust – www.lullabytrust.org.uk
*I was gifted the blinds, bunkbed and bean bag chair for the purposes of photography and review. All opinions are 100% my own*