A good night’s sleep is important for everyone’s physical and emotional health – but especially for children. Children need long periods of uninterrupted sleep for optimal growth and development. However, more than a third of school-aged children may have sleep problems.1 There are many reasons as to why your child is having trouble falling asleep, including a reluctance to go to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, nightmares, and sleep walking. If a child doesn’t get undisturbed sleep, they can find it harder to concentrate during the day. Lack of sleep could also affect how your child behaves and learns. Some children with special needs, such as those with autism, seem to find establishing a consistent sleep pattern difficult. Below, you can find some common sleep problems in children, and our advice on how to solve them.

You find it hard to get your child to settle to sleep at a reasonable time in the evening – or they wake you up more than once at night.

Your child could have a behavioural sleep problem. These can be linked with some inappropriate behaviour around the time your child goes to bed. Having this sleep problem means that it’s hard to get your child to bed and go to sleep – and stay asleep. Your child might have had these problems from a young age, or they can start having these problems after going on holiday, moving to a new house, being sick, going to hospital, family upsets, or starting school. The good news is that you can solve this problem, as there are behaviours that your child can learn. These will make bedtimes easier and promote good sleep.

To get your child into bed at the right time, set up a bedtime routine. Stick to it each night – it’s important that you’re consistent with it. This helps your child’s body and mind get ready for bed, and they’ll go to sleep more easily if they go to bed at about the same time each night. Plus, they’re more likely to wake at about the same time each morning. To set up a bedtime routine, it’s best to start with a 30 – 60-minute quiet time before your child goes to bed. Keep them away from computers, TVs, phones, and tablets. A rough idea of a bedtime routine could be; a bath or shower, pyjamas, a drink, clean teeth, a toilet visit, a bedtime story, a goodnight kiss, lights out. When you switch off the lights will depend on their sleep need and when they have to wake up. For example, if your child needs 11 hours of sleep and has to wake up at 7 a.m., then lights out would be at about 8 p.m.

Find out more about children’s sleeping needs at different ages here.

Your child snores at night, has a restless sleep, and wakes in the morning but does not look refreshed.

Your child might have Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome (OSAS). They’ll need to see a paediatric sleep specialist to look at your child’s breathing and sleep. OSAS is a breathing problem during sleep. Signs that your child could have OSAS include loud snoring, noisy breathing, having to make more of an effort to breathe, or not breathing consistently with pauses and gasps every now and then.

OSAS can cause a restless sleep pattern, which leads to poor quality sleep. A child with OSAS might grow and gain weight slowly, and won’t look refreshed in the morning. Lack of a good night’s sleep can lead to problems with behaviour and learning during the day.

You can read more about Sleep Apnoea here. If you suspect that your child may have OSAS, consult your doctor and they’ll help you get to the bottom of this.

Your child complains that their legs don’t feel comfortable or they have to move or get out of bed to walk around.

Your child may have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), a movement disorder that causes strange feelings in the legs. These come when the legs are at rest, or when your child is lying down ready for sleep. When your child moves or walks around, they’ll feel better for a short time. However, the feelings will come back. As these feelings tend to occur in the time before sleep, it can be difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. This can make their sleep worse, and can lead to behaviour and learning problems during the day. A paediatric sleep specialist can tell you if your child has RLS and, if so, how bad it is. They’ll then decide how to treat it if necessary.

Read more about RLS here.

Your child finds it hard to get to sleep, finds it hard to get back to sleep after they wake up at night, or wake up very early in the morning.

Your child might have insomnia, a sleep problem where it’s hard to get to sleep and stay asleep. The cause is often behavioural sleep problems, anxiety, depression, or stress. It could also be that they can’t switch off the brain from thinking and let go of the day, which can lead to problems with behaviour and learning during the day. Good sleep habits before and after going to bed can help this. These can include establishing a regular sleep pattern and a consistent bedtime routine, making sure that the bedroom is comfortable, only sleeping in the bed and not doing daytime activities in bed, and even a snack before bedtime. Although these may fix the issue for some children, you should visit your doctor if you find no improvement. Doctors will consult you to find out the root cause of your child’s sleep problem, and can suggest a personalised approach to helping them.

Read more about insomnia here.

Remember, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor about sleep problems in children. If your child is struggling to get a good night’s sleep, they will consult you on the best way to help your child.

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Footnotes

  1. https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/pdfs/childrens-sleep-disorders.pdf
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