child counseling

When Your Child Won’t Sleep

Are you exhausted because your child won’t sleep?  Does your child struggle to fall asleep at night? Have you found yourself in an endless, exhausting bedtime routine with your child and you are unsure of how to break it? There could be a number of reasons why your child struggles to fall asleep or can’t seem to develop a ‘normal’ sleep routine. It can be the result of anxiety related to school, irrational fears, everyday life stressors or maybe they have become accustomed to needing you present to fall asleep. Prior to seeking anxiety treatment with a professional, there are some strategies you can try at home first.

When your child won’t sleep, the first instinct you may have is to sit with them until they fall asleep or let your child sleep with you. After a while, this can be exhausting and leave you feeling like there is nothing you can do to break this habit.  We all know that by trying something different, there is a risk that none of the family will get any sleep while trying to adapt to a new routine.  Unfortunately in the throws of your own exhaustion, this may lead you to may make decisions that are easy, but not always helpful for the long term. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to try some new strategies to get both you and your child some much needed sleep.

It is important to develop and implement a bedtime routine. Anything that helps your child wind down from the day and get into a state of relaxation is the best place to start. Begin the bedtime routine 45 minutes to an hour before bedtime.

Bedtime routine ideas to help your child sleep:

  • Baths/showers: Baths are soothing and help the body calm down after a long day of activities.
  • Read books together:  Reading can help create positive thoughts, as well as a foster time for bonding between you and your child.
  • Discuss plans for the next day: Creating a sense of structure and anticipation of good things, knowing what the next day will bring.
  • Positives thoughts:  Gratitude and fun thoughts help distract your child from their worries or fears on which they may start to ruminate around bedtime.
  • Hugs and kisses goodnight: Snuggles are comforting and loving, helping soothe your child.

Start the new routine by explaining to your child the ground rules for bedtime.  It is important to follow through with these rules because the idea is to develop a pattern of behavior that can be rewarded, providing an incentive to sleep all night on their own. If the ground rules are not strictly implemented, the child will struggle to break the habit and will have a hard time differentiating between what is and what is not part of the sleep routine, eventually back firing. This doesn’t mean every night will go according to plan and when it doesn’t, engage in a positive discussion with your child about the importance of sticking to the new sleep routine.

Here are the rules:

  • They must stay in their bed.  Validate that this may be difficult for them at first.
  • They must not beg for you to stay.
  • Ensure them that you will check on them every 10 minutes. You may offer soothing at that time but importantlythey may not call out to you in between check-ins.
  • Either lock your bedroom door so they can’t come in or put something on the door such as bells, so that it will wake you up when they come in. When that happens, take them back to their rooms and begin the 10-minute check in’s again. You may be tired the next day but you must go through the process of getting them back in their own rooms and not let them stay in your room.

If fears and worries come up during the pre-bedtime routine, try directing the conversation to a positive topic. Discuss something they are looking forward to, such as sports, outings, upcoming vacations, etc. Your child may protest or beg you to stay, but it is important to ignore these behaviors and leave the bedroom before your child falls asleep. Also, do not engage in discussion about consequences or frustrations, especially during the early stages of implementing this sleep plan as you don’t want to increase the child’s anxiety.  This will all be new to them and it will take them a little time to adjust to the new routine.

Create healthy rewards to incentivize sleep.

If your child has a night where they sleep in their own rooms all night or without you sitting there until they fall asleep, they receive a sticker. When they receive 7 consecutive stickers, they earn a reward of something they have been looking forward to doing. For example, going to a specific movie, going for ice cream, or earning something they have been really wanting. All rewards can be tailored so that it is age appropriate for your child. If they are older and do not like the idea of stickers, try just keeping track of how many days they are successful and deciding what the reward will be together, as long as they are reasonable. It is important to note that if they break any of the rules, there should not be any consequences other than not getting a sticker and having to start the 7 days over.

If you find you and your child are still exhausted, the issue continues that your child won’t sleep, and you are not able to change the grueling bedtime ordeal, then seeking the help of a licensed mental health provider  could also be helpful for anxiety treatment and  provide both you and your child the necessary tools to feel better and explore some of the root causes of their sleep anxiety.