About sleep problems and solutions in children and teenagers
All children can sometimes have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Children’s problems with sleep might be caused by or related to things like:
- bedtime routines
- sleep environments
- unhealthy eating habits
- lack of physical activity
- illnesses, health conditions or anxiety.
Sometimes sleep behaviour can look like a problem, but it’s actually a common part of development. This includes:
- night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking
- bedwetting and toileting.
Too much noise, activity or screen use before bed can get children overexcited and make it harder for them to settle down for sleep. You can work on this with a bedtime routine that includes up to an hour of quiet time. This will help your child wind down for sleep.
Sometimes changes to children’s normal bedtime routine can affect how well they settle down – for example, daylight saving, jet lag or a new bedroom. These sleep problems usually sort themselves out within a week or so, as your child’s sleep cycle adjusts to a new routine.
Some sleep environments can make it harder for children to get to sleep.
A comfortable environment for sleep is usually quiet, dimly lit and neither too hot nor too cold.
Good sleep habits like bedtime routines and comfortable sleep environments can help with sleep problems. You might have to try a few things to find what most helps your child. If you don’t see any improvements after about 2 weeks, it’s worth talking to your child’s GP. There might be medical or psychological reasons for your child’s sleep problems.
What and when your child eats and drinks can affect their ability to settle down at night.
Here are some ideas if you think your child’s eating habits during the day might be causing sleep problems:
- Make sure your child avoids caffeine – for example, in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – especially after about 3 pm.
- Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can make it harder for your child to get to sleep.
If your child isn’t doing enough physical activity during the day, they might not be feeling physically tired enough to settle down for sleep at night.
It’s a good idea to encourage your child to be more active during the day. Even a family walk before dinner can make a difference.
It’s great if your child can be active outside, because plenty of natural light during the day also helps with sleep.
Australian guidelines recommend that children aged 5-17 years have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Read more about physical activity for young children, physical activity for school-age children and physical activity for pre-teens and teenagers.
Common childhood illnesses
Common childhood illnesses like colds or ear infections can sometimes make it hard for children to settle or sleep well. This is normal.
But if your child has been sick, you’ve probably been getting up in the night to soothe and settle them. Once your child is better, they might like to keep having that extra night-time attention. If this sounds like your situation, you might need to be firm about getting back into your child’s normal bedtime routine.
Chronic health conditions
Chronic health conditions like asthma or epilepsy can also affect children’s sleep.
It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s GP if your child has sleep problems and a chronic condition.
Some children snore. If your child snores all the time, even when they’re well, consider talking with your child’s GP. Snoring can sometimes be a sign of sleep apnoea.
Worries and anxiety
If your child is worried about something, they might find it hard to get to sleep or get back to sleep if they wake in the night.
You can deal with some worries straight away. For example, ‘Yes, you can have Isla over to play on the weekend even though Grandma is staying with us’.
Other worries will need more time and talk. For example, if your child is worried about doing a speech in front of the class, you could set aside time after school to listen to your child and work together on solutions.
Big problems like bullying can worry your child and affect their sleep over a longer period. If your child knows what you’re doing to work on the problem, it might help them sleep better. During the day, tell your child how you plan to help, and remind them again if they start to worry at bedtime.
Anxiety can affect children’s sleep too. And if your child is sleeping poorly, this can make their anxiety worse. You might consider seeing your GP or another health professional if your child’s anxiety seems unusually severe.
Caring for a child with sleep problems can disrupt your family routine. It can also cause poor sleep, stress, anxiety or even depression for you. Try to look after yourself and ask for help from family and friends. Parenting helplines can also help.
Night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking
If your child sometimes wakes up screaming or crying, it could be a night terror or a nightmare. Some children might also sleepwalk.
Although night terrors, nightmares and sleepwalking are all typical aspects of development, it’s best to talk to your child’s GP if you’re worried or if your child’s behaviour seems severe.
Bedwetting and toileting
Your child might wake because they’re wetting the bed. Or they might wake to go to the toilet and then find it hard to get back to sleep.
You can talk with the GP if toilet training and bedwetting are problems for your child.
Getting help for sleep problems in children and teenagers
Talk with your child’s GP if you’ve been trying good sleep habits and lifestyle changes, and they don’t seem to be helping. You might be referred to a paediatrician, psychologist or other health professional who’s experienced in treating children’s persistent sleep problems. You can also go to Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist to look for psychologists with expertise in sleep problems.
Although medicine isn’t the best solution to sleep problems, it can help in some extreme cases. You should give your child sleep medicine only if your doctor advises you to do so and only if the doctor is supervising your child’s treatment.
Persistent sleep problems are behaviour issues or medical conditions that affect children’s sleep and make it hard for them to function during the day over a long period of time. Talk with your child’s GP if you’re concerned.
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