If your child is struggling to get to sleep at night, don’t worry! This is far more common than you probably realise, and there’s a lot you can do to help ensure your little ones get a good night’s sleep, every night. So much of it comes down to simply practising good sleep hygiene, but let’s explore things a little further.
How much sleep your child needs every night will depend on their age. Use the table below to work out the healthiest amount of sleep for your child – including naptime:
Sleep time (within a 24-hour period)
4 to 12 months old
12 to 16 hours (including naps)
1 to 2 years old
11 to 14 hours (including naps)
3 to 5 years old
10 to 13 hours (including naps)
6 to 12 years old
9 to 12 hours
13 to 18 years old
8 to 10 hours
It’s important to keep an eye on them when they’re younger and know how quickly they fall asleep after you’ve tucked them in. It shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to half an hour for your child to doze off.
The techniques and tips we explore below will help you whether they struggle to fall asleep, struggle to stay asleep, or both, but it’s important to first try and identify the cause.
There are plenty of reasons your child may have difficulty nodding off at night. Insomnia can be both the inability to fall asleep and the inability to stay asleep throughout the night. Insomnia is a chronic issue – so if they only have trouble sleeping every once in a while, it may be other causes. If they experience difficulty sleeping multiple nights a week and it has continued for months, it may be insomnia.
The most common causes of insomnia are the following:
Caffeine is a stimulant that doesn’t just keep adults awake. You’ll find caffeine in energy drinks and fizzy drinks that your children may drink – and this can have a major impact on their ability to get to sleep. These sugary drinks should be avoided as much as possible, and you should always limit their consumption to before lunchtime. Kids need a lot of time to let the caffeine boost wear off so they can settle down in time for bed.
It’s important to remember that kids can get stressed too. They might not be able to identify their stress or what’s causing it, but if you notice that they’re struggling at school, having issues with their friends, and not quite as bubbly and energic as usual, then stress may be the cause. If you’re worried that they may be stressed or anxious, talk to a professional about identifying the root of it.
Insomnia can be a side effect of certain medications, like antidepressants or those used to treat hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If your child has been struggling to sleep after starting a new medication, talk to their doctor about remedies.
Your child may be suffering from a sleep disorder like restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea. Other medical issues that could lead to insomnia include allergies, hay fever, eczema causing skin irritation, and growing pains. It’s important to make sure your child has regular check-ups with the doctor to ensure you catch any of these issues as they arise.
Your child may be struggling to sleep because of night terrors and bad dreams, or anxieties over problems like bed wetting and sleepwalking. It’s important to understand what’s causing their fears in order to find the best solutions for them, and it’s crucial that they learn how to cope with their fears on their own.
You might be used to them coming to you in the middle of the night because they’ve had a nightmare or they’re too scared to sleep. While you’ll want to be there for them to ease them back to sleep, practicing self-settling techniques is the best way to teach them to overcome their worries on their own.
If you continue to engage every time they’re up in the middle of the night, they’ll become over-reliant on mum and dad and won’t learn how to sleep comfortably by themself, which will have lasting effects in the future. Instead, if they come to you in the middle of the night, do your best to refrain from engaging too much. You don’t have to ignore them altogether, but calmly and concisely motivate them to keep trying on their own.
You can reward them in the morning if they manage to sleep through the night, which will encourage them to keep trying without turning to you for help.
If they’re scared of the dark, a great way to ease their anxieties is to get a soothing night light. You want to make sure you get a specific night light designed to help kids sleep. Regular lamps or room lights are too bright, which will stop melatonin – the body’s natural sleep hormone –from working its magic.
You can give your little one a sense of security with a special cuddly toy or snuggly blanket. Having something to cuddle with as they fall asleep will help them learn to stay calm without relying on you to be by their side.
It can also be helpful to have a pet sleep in the same room, they’ll feel comforted knowing their furry friend is there to protect them – but this is only helpful if you know your pet won’t bother them throughout the night.
Your child may be struggling to sleep because their bedroom isn’t a relaxing, restful environment. Too much noise, light, and mess, or a room that’s too hot or cold can make it difficult to fall asleep easily and cause them to be restless at night.
It’s important to create a calming environment that they can associate with rest. Making sure their room is tidy by bedtime is essential – as leaving toys and other stimulants around will distract them from the task at hand.
The NHS recommends that a child’s room should be between 16°C and 20°C, any light should be dim, and any noise from outside should be blocked for a healthy night’s sleep.
Young ones who go to sleep earlier might be heading to bed while the sun hasn’t fully set, especially in summer, so you might benefit from having blackout curtains in their room. Make sure the curtains stay open during the day, though, so they know to associate the dark with bedtime.
Make sure they’ve got a comfortable bed and mattress for their age and development, and that they have good quality bedding to encourage a snuggly snooze.
Improving their sleep hygiene and making sure they get the rest they need means making changes not just to their bedtime routine, but to their habits throughout the day. We’ve already mentioned limiting caffeine consumption to earlier in the day, but there are so many more things you can and should do to ensure sweet dreams for the whole family:
Daily exercise is vital for kids and adults alike, and it will make a huge difference for your little one’s sleep hygiene. Exercise helps them burn energy, whether it’s a walk around the neighbourhood, sports, or just some time jumping on the trampoline. Going to bed having not burned that energy earlier in the day will make a for a restless night.
Aim to keep exercise in the earlier hours of the day. As they get older, they’ll start doing after school sports and they’ll be active throughout the day, but you just need to make sure they’ve got a few hours to cool off and wind down before bedtime.
Screens can be overstimulating and the light they emit will prevent the body from producing melatonin. Because of this, you should make sure their screen time, whether its TV, a computer, a tablet or a phone, ends at least an hour before bedtime. Get them out of the habit of relying on screens to unwind, and instead use the hours before bedtime for relaxing activities like reading, taking a bath, and listening to calming music.
It’s so important to make sure they’re eating well and limit their sugar consumption as much as you can. On top of healthy eating, eating at the right time is also essential for a good night’s sleep. Our bodies need time to digest food before we go to bed, so it’s recommended that kids don’t eat a big meal within three hours of bedtime.
Part of creating the right environment for your kids to sleep well is helping associate their bed and their bedroom with rest. That means that you should limit the time they spend in or on their bed to when they’re going to sleep. If you want a cosy place for them to sit, play, read and relax during the day, go for a daybed instead. If they spend too much time on their regular bed, they won’t associate it with sleep.
On the other end, spending too much time lying down or falling asleep on the sofa or elsewhere can have the same effect. So, it’s important to reinforce the idea that the bed is for sleeping, the sofa is for sitting. Discourage them from lying down when it isn’t naptime or bedtime, this is good for their sleep hygiene and their physical and mental wellbeing in general.
This also means making sure to limit those weekend lie-ins – especially once they’re teenagers with busy schedules.
Establishing a good bedtime routine that you stick to every night, including weekends, will help them foster healthy sleep habits. They should go to bed at the same time every night, with the same routine leading up to it. Their bedtime routine will include essentials like getting into their PJs, brushing their teeth and using the loo right before bed to prevent them getting up in the middle of the night, as well as calming activities like reading and taking a bath.
Over time they’ll get used to their routine and soon it’ll become second nature.
If you’ve tried all of the above techniques and your child is still struggling to fall asleep, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor for further guidance. You want to solve the issue as soon as possible as sleep deprivation can have lasting effects on their wellbeing and development. A medical professional can help you identify the underlying cause of the issue and how to tackle it fast.