Skip to main content

What to do if your child can't sleep

  • Story Highlights
  • Before-bed routines are important for kids of all ages, sleep doctor says
  • Warm milk contains tryptophan, which can help induce sleep
  • For children who worry, ban scary movies and books at night
  • Next Article in Living »
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- Put bedtime bugaboos -- and your kids -- to rest with these expert solutions.

Evening rituals help teach children when it's time to go to sleep.

Evening rituals help teach children when it's time to go to sleep.

Problem: Your child gets up repeatedly after you've put him to bed, calling, "Mom, I need a glass of water."
Why it happens: Kids make bedtime curtain calls for many reasons. Preschoolers may be asserting their independence: "You can't make me stay in bed!" Or they stall because they're afraid of the dark. The most common reason, though, is that you've slipped from a consistent routine you had when they were babies.
How to rest easy: Before-bed routines are important for children of all ages, says Lynn D'Andrea, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, in Wauwatosa. "Kids start to think, I've done my routine -- now it's bedtime," she says. The evening ritual could be as simple as reading your child a story and wishing him a good night. Another tool is a bedtime pass, a card your child can turn in for one nighttime request. Preschoolers also benefit from rewards (like extra playground time) for staying put.

Problem: Your child is scared -- of the boogeyman or even a house fire.
Why it happens: As kids wind down, it's normal for anxieties to surface. Your preschooler is apt to worry about what lurks in the shadows, while an older child may have relatively realistic fears -- of robbers, for instance.
How to rest easy: A night-light to chase away gloom and a few squirts of anti-monster spray (tap water in a specially marked bottle) are often enough to settle down a young one. "These are imaginary fears, so imaginary solutions work well," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., an associate director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Sleep Center and a coauthor of "Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep." Don't worry about reinforcing anxieties by acknowledging them. If an older child is a worrier, ban scary movies and books at night. If he frets about intruders or natural disasters, chat with him about these issues well before bedtime. "For example, ask, 'What would you do if we had a fire?'" says D'Andrea. "Having an escape plan for an emergency could also help him relax."

Problem: Your child can't fall asleep, and then it takes a marching band to wake him up in the morning.
Why it happens: Kids can have insomnia for any number of reasons, from drinking caffeinated drinks at night to schoolwork anxiety. But you might also have a night owl in your flock: a child whose internal clock keeps him up. Real Simple: The basics of good sleep
How to rest easy: Revisit the basics. Make sure your child has a bedtime routine. If you notice that he can't fall asleep until late (say, after midnight) and sleeps in when allowed to sleep on his own schedule, he may have delayed sleep-phase syndrome, which is more common in teens, notes Judith Owens, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at the Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence, and a coauthor (with Jodi Mindell, Ph.D.) of "Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep." This can be tough on both your child and family members who are on more traditional schedules, so ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist. Professionals can help shift your child's sleep time closer to normal. Other tips:
Tip 1: Have your child avoid screen time (like the TV and the computer) for at least half an hour before bed.
Tip 2: Turn down the lights to help his body prepare for sleep. Come morning, open the drapes and turn on the lights. (Bright light can help reset the body clock.)
Tip 3: Make sure he gets up at a consistent time (although an hour later on weekends is OK) so he'll be tired at the same time each night.

Problem: Your child crawls into bed with you in the middle of the night.
Why it happens: Maybe you let her sleep in your bed when she was younger or after she had a bad dream.
How to rest easy: "To make a change, have a plan and be consistent about it," says Mindell. "That typically involves returning your child to her bed every time she gets up." If you do this, consider hanging a bell from your doorknob so you can hear her if she sneaks back in. Or, if your little one is afraid of being alone, let her camp on your floor in a sleeping bag for a while (maybe even a few weeks) and switch her back to her bedroom when she adjusts.
Tip: Does warm milk really work? Yes! Milk contains tryptophan, which can help induce sleep, just like Thanksgiving turkey does. Real Simple: Get a good night's sleep

Problem: Your child has night terrors.
Why it happens: Your child is overtired.
How to rest easy: Well, as easy as you can while your sleeping child yells with her eyes open! Don't worry: As scary as these episodes are for you, she won't remember them. "Often your child will get agitated if you touch her, so just stand silently in her room to make sure she's safe," says Mindell. Most episodes are over in less than 20 minutes, and kids usually outgrow them by age six. Real Simple: Readers' strategies for longer, deeper sleep

Problem: Your preschooler wets the bed.
Why it happens: Even the toilet-trained won't be dry regularly until after age six. "Younger kids' bodies aren't ready to hold urine as they sleep," says Linda M. Dairiki Shortliffe, M.D., chair of the department of urology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
How to rest easy: Disposable briefs and a waterproof mattress cover may be your best bets. And even if she is dry most nights, expect accidents when she is sick, away from home, or under stress.

Problem: Your older child (seven or up) wets the bed.
Why it happens: "It could indicate a urinary-tract infection," says Shortliffe. However, about 5 to 10 percent of school-age children (boys, mostly) suffer from bed-wetting.
How to rest easy: "A good initial solution is a bed alarm, which wakes up the child after an accident," says Shortliffe. (It is attached to sensors that detect wetness.) "But it can take about four months to really see results, since the child's brain has to be trained to wake him up before he needs to use the bathroom," she explains. A short-term option for unusual circumstances (camp, a slumber party) is desmopressin, a synthetic hormone that makes the bladder create less liquid at night. The good news: By adolescence, his body should produce enough vasopressin, a natural antidiuretic, to dry up his bed-wetting problem.

Get a FREE TRIAL issue of Real Simple - CLICK HERE !

Copyright 2007 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

All About Parenting

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print