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Childhood sleep problems may persist until sleeping problems, study says – but parents can help

Understanding sleep problems in children

Sleep problems are common among children, especially when they’re young. Insomnia, bedtime fears, night terrors, sleepwalking, and bed-wetting can all disrupt your child’s natural sleep pattern. Some children may not feel tired at their designated bedtime while others have trouble falling asleep without a parent present. Some kids will frequently wake up in the middle of night, suddenly wide awake, and either toss and turn or come and wake up mom and dad.

It can be frustrating to have your own sleep regularly disturbed and then find yourself having to rush around in the morning because your child’s late getting up, or having to deal with a fussy, moody child who’s low on sleep. But there is hope. Many childhood sleep problems are linked to daytime behavior and bedtime habits that you can work with your child to change. With a little patience and discipline, you can help your child overcome their sleep difficulties, help them fall and stay asleep—and get back on track to more restful nights of your own.

How much sleep do children need?

To function at their best, children and teens typically need more sleep than adults. The chart below outlines the recommended hours that developing kids should spend asleep.

How many hours of sleep do kids need?
Age group Recommended sleep time
Infants (4 to 12 months) 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
Toddlers (1 to 2 years) 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
Children (3 to 5 years) 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
Children (6 to 12 years) 9 to 12 hours
Teens (13 to 18 years) 8 to 12 hours

Signs that your child isn’t getting enough sleep

Children, just like adults, have trouble controlling their moods when they’re sleep deprived. Sleep, or lack thereof, affects much of a child’s behavior and state of mind. In some cases, the symptoms of insufficient sleep can even mimic those of ADHD.

If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, they may:

  • Often seem cranky, irritable, or over-emotional.
  • Have trouble concentrating at school or at home? Has a teacher informed you of this problem.
  • Fall asleep while riding in the car.
  • Appear to struggle following conversations or seem to “space out” a lot.
  • Have trouble waking up or fall back asleep after you’ve gotten them up for the day.
  • Often become drowsy or “crash” much earlier than their regular bedtime.

If your child wakes up often in the night, or has trouble settling down, it could mean they’re struggling with insomnia, one of the biggest sleep issues among kids.

Insomnia in children

Insomnia is one of the sleep problems that causes inability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, resulting in unrefreshing or non-restorative sleep. Often, the issue resolves itself over time. But if your child experiences difficulty sleeping more than three times a week for several months, and it significantly impairs their daytime functioning, it may point to insomnia or another sleep disorder.

Causes of insomnia in kids

For many children, their difficulties falling or staying asleep stem from their daytime habits or how they spend their time right before bed. Eating too much sugary food during the day, for example, or watching TV right before bed could be enough to disrupt your child’s sleep problems. Of course, younger children especially will have difficulty making the connection between their habits and the quality of their sleep, so you’ll have to act as a sleep detective on their behalf.

Other common reasons why your child may be experiencing sleep difficulties include

  • Stress. Yes, they are young, but children also experience stress—often triggered by issues at school or home. They may be struggling to keep up in class, experiencing problems with their friends, or even being bullied. At home, stress can arise from parents’ marital problems, the arrival of a new baby, or changes in their sleeping arrangements that now require them to share a bedroom with a sibling, parent, or grandparent, for example.
  • Caffeine. Many sodas and energy drinks contain caffeine which can keep kids awake at night. Try to limit your child’s consumption past lunchtime. Better yet, try to cut out these types of drinks as much as possible.
  • Side effects of medications. Some drugs, such as those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antidepressants, can also cause insomnia in children.
  • Other medical issues. It could be a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, or perhaps it’s triggered by a stuffy nose from allergies, growing pains, or itchy skin from eczema. Keeping your child up-to-date on health exams can help identify any issues that could interfere with their sleep.

Coping with insomnia in children

While establishing good lifestyle habits can help ensure a restful night for a child of any age, it’s especially important for older children and teens.

Make sure your child uses their bed only for sleep. If possible, encourage them to use their bed only for sleep and a pre-bedtime ritual (such as reading a book) rather than homework, for example. Otherwise, they’ll associate the bed with other activities rather than rest and relaxation. Similarly, don’t use your child’s bedroom for time-out or they’ll learn to associate it with punishment.

Ensure their bedroom is comfortable. Most kids sleep best in a slightly cool room (around 65 degrees). If there’s noise from outside, using white noise from a fan or sound machine can help to mask it. Make sure your child’s bed is not overloaded with toys, as that can become distracting at bedtime.

Try to keep the same sleep schedule, even on weekends. This will make it easier for your child to wake up and fall asleep naturally. Adolescents should not need to sleep much more than an hour past their usual wakeup time on the weekends. If they do, this indicates that they aren’t getting enough sleep during the week.

Keep your child from going to bed too hungry or full. A light snack (such as warm milk and a banana) before bed is a good idea. However, heavy meals within an hour or two of bedtime may keep kids awake.

Encourage an active lifestyle. Regular exercise prevents restlessness at night. An hour every day is the recommended amount. However, try to keep your kids from vigorous activity within three hours of bedtime.

Encourage natural light exposure first thing in the morning. Opening the blinds helps your child wake up and signifies the start of the day.

Pay attention to napping. Children typically need at least four hours between sleep periods before they are tired enough to doze off again. Although nap needs may vary, make sure your child is not asleep for too long or too close to bedtime.

Set limits with electronics. The blue light emitted by the TV, phones, tablets, and video games can disrupt the body’s sleep/wake cycle and makes it more difficult to sleep. Turn off these devices at least one hour before bed and store them outside your child’s bedroom during sleep hours.

Spend quality time together. Some kids want to stay up later because they’re craving more attention from their parents. If both parents work during the day, evenings are when they’re available. Even just asking kids about their friends or interests can go a long way. For babies, spend a few minutes singing to them, making eye contact, or interacting in a gentle way as they wind down for the night.

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