Do you dread bedtime? In this article I’ll take you through my top child sleep solutions for children aged five and upwards. I’ll look at ways you can help your child get more and better sleep. Once your child’s sleep issues are resolved, you’ll have less stress and your evenings will be yours once again!
For younger children I recommend this article and The Baby Whisperer book (which was a lifesaver when my daughter was tiny!). I will be writing a similar article to support parents of teenage children with sleep difficulties, very soon.
Quality and quantity are both important. If you are not sure how much sleep is enough for your child’s age, this NHS guide will be helpful.
Child Sleep Solutions: Follow These 9 Steps
Chronic lack of sleep is associated with a range of mental health difficulties as well as physical ill health.
Here are my top psychology-based child sleep solutions that I use in my clinic when I advise families. When it comes to sleep concerns, we need to go back to basics. But this doesn’t mean you won’t see significant results!
1. Healthy Sleep Habits Start in the Morning
Nighttime sleep doesn’t just depend on what your child does at bedtime. Healthy sleep habits actually start in the morning!
Sleep challenges in children may mean that a child’s circadian rhythm has become out of sync. The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock that regulates daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness.
When the circadian rhythm is out of sync it can lead to sleep problems, mood changes, and other health issues.
If your child’s body has become “out of sync”, you need to train their brain back into a clear rhythm so that it can tell the difference between day and night, sleeping and waking. You should aim to have a really clear distinction between waking time and sleeping time.
Try to ensure your child wakes up at the same time in the mornings and goes to sleep at the same time every night.
When your child wakes up, ensure they get as much direct sunlight as possible. Ideally get them outside. This will increase production of cortisol, the hormone which wakes us up and makes us alert. Consider using a “light therapy” desk lamp in Winter mornings or on days when sunlight is in short supply.
Your child should breakfast soon after waking to raise blood sugar. This helps the brain differentiate between day and night. Ensure your child’s breakfast contains protein (eg peanut butter on toast) for slow-release energy. They should also try to eat regular slow-release energy foods during the day. This way of eating helps regulate the circadian rhythm.
2. Work on a Consistent Bedtime Routine
A peaceful bedtime routine is essential for children to fall asleep and stay asleep. By creating a new routine that includes relaxing activities, children will learn to associate these activities with sleep. Use sensory cues in the environment to help your child prepare for sleep. For example, dimming the lights and lowering volumes of music or television.
When the routine is consistent, it signals to the child’s brain that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep. This triggers the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
The routine should include activities such as reading a book, taking a bath, or listening to calming music. A consistent bedtime routine helps children to feel secure and prepared for sleep, which leads to more restful nights and improved overall health.
For example, a healthy bedtime routine for an eight-year-old child could include the following steps:
- Set a consistent bedtime and stick to it.
- About an hour before bedtime, work on soothing your child’s senses. For example, turn down the volume on the TV or music, talk in a softer voice, dim the lights, consider using relaxing smells (eg candles, oils) or tastes (eg hot chocolate). These cues act as prompts for your child’s brain that it can wind down ready for sleep.
- Encourage your child to take a bath or shower and change into comfortable pyjamas. The drop in body temperature after a warm bath or shower can help signal to the body that it’s time to sleep.
- Read a book together or allowing your child to read independently for a set amount of time.
- Spend five minutes practicing deep breathing to calm your child’s central nervous system.
- Have a cuddle and say goodnight, promising to come and check on your child in half an hour.
Don’t allow your child to do anything too exciting or stimulating in the evening. The brain is easily over-stimulated and it will become alert. This is the opposite of getting ready for sleep!
Pay attention to the types of books your child is reading (or listening to) at night. Reading should be encouraged, but if the story is too exciting it may overstimulate your child’s brain and give mixed messages about sleep.
3. Adapt Your Child’s Sleep Environment
Is your child’s bedroom optimised for sleep? The chances are, there are easy changes you can make which will have a positive impact. Here are some pointers.
- Ensure there is absolutely no technology in your child’s bedroom. See technology section below!
- Ensure the bedroom is very dark. Melatonin is essential for sleep, and it is triggered by darkness. Blackout blinds are helpful in the Spring and Summer months and can help prevent early morning waking. If your child is frightened of the dark, try to work on this gradually. For example, have the door open and landing light on, but close it a tiny bit more each night.
- Minimize clutter. Your child’s brain will not be able to calm itself and prepare for sleep if the bedroom is too busy. If your child’s bedroom is cluttered, set a date for a clear-out or see if you can re-think her bedroom storage systems.
- Choose soothing colors and decor that promote relaxation and calm.
- Choose a comfortable mattress and pillow to ensure proper spinal alignment and comfort.
- Make sure the room is cool. Around 18.3°C (65°F) is the best temperature for a good night’s sleep.
4. Take Action to Reduce Stress
If your child is struggling to wind down at night, has disturbed or light sleep, or wakes early, they may well be showing signs of stress. If your child is stressed they will have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bloodstream. While cortisol is a necessary hormone for survival, it can contribute to childhood sleep problems in several ways:
- Increased alertness: Cortisol is designed to keep us alert and awake, which is helpful during times of stress. However, if cortisol levels remain high at night, it can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Disrupting the sleep cycle: Cortisol can interfere with the body’s natural sleep cycle by suppressing the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This can lead to disrupted sleep and reduced sleep quality.
- Nighttime awakening: High levels of cortisol can cause nighttime awakening, where the body wakes up in the middle of the night and struggles to fall back asleep, leading to inadequate sleep quality overall.
In line with my article about stress in children, I recommend analysing your child’s “stress cup fillers” and “stress cup emptiers”. Focus on removing or eliminating the cup fillers and increasing the cup emptiers.
5. Manage Physical Activity
Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality and help children fall asleep more easily. It’s best to do intense physical activity earlier in the day. Heavy exercise too close to bedtime can be overstimulating. Mindful movement such as yoga in the evenings is great for sleep, however.
6. Manage Technology
If you want your child to get proper sleep which refreshes and rejuvenates them, don’t allow technology in the bedroom. I know this may sound impossible for some parents of older children. I have two teenagers. This is just about the only hard and fast house rule we have, because it is so important. The only exception to this is their “read only” kindles.
Technology is generally too overstimulating and exciting, but of course just the blue light in itself interferes with sleep, by inhibiting the sleep hormone melatonin.
7. Focus on Gentle Methods
Independent sleep in their own bed doesn’t come naturally to many children. If you think about it, thousands of years ago when we lived in caves, lone sleeping would not have been a good idea for children. It would have made them highly vulnerable. Independent sleeping is more of a modern invention.
I have supported children even at twelve years of age who are anxious about sleeping alone, and this creates significant sleep challenges. Both falling asleep alone and staying in bed all night are more difficult.
As with any area of child development, children progress with learning to soothe themselves to sleep at different rates. Regression is very common even into the teenage years. Read my colleague Hayley Vaughan-Smith’s article on night-time anxiety, for a comprehensive guide.
Night Time Sleep and Anxiety
It is very important that you do not force your child to sleep alone if they are too anxious to do so. This can cause sleep disturbance and higher anxiety. If a child is feeling insecure or frightened their body will produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is designed to keep us awake and alert. So, either they will remain awake, or they may fall into a fitful sleep of poor quality which will leave them exhausted.
This applies to children of any age, whether four or fourteen. Instead, you need to help them feel safe by sitting with them (not all night, but until they are feeling safe again). Try to “contain” their fear or worry to produce a safe base which will allow them to switch off and go to sleep. Try these listening strategies which will help your child feel heard and contained.
We need to use gentle sleep solutions which make your child feel safe. A nurturing approach is the most effective way to help your child get adequate sleep in the long term. Sleep training based on “crying it out” or strict schedules can increase anxiety and most psychologists run a mile from these.
If your child is going through a period of feeling vulnerable or stressed and needs extra reassurance at bedtime, try gradual withdrawal. This will look different depending on the age of your child. In essence, it means staying with your child for extra reassurance, and gradually retreating out of the room, either to sit outside whilst your child falls asleep, or agreeing a plan with your child to come in and check on her regularly. For example, you might plan to check up on them every twenty minutes until they are in a deep sleep.
8. Use Nutrition to Help Sleep
Don’t underestimate that power of nutrition to help the body sleep. Although the research is limited, there are several foods and drinks that are thought to help with sleep owing to their natural properties. Some of these foods include:
Cherries: Cherries are a natural source of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.
Bananas: Bananas are rich in potassium, magnesium, and vitamin B6, which help promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.
Almonds: Almonds are a good source of magnesium, which can help reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Seeds (such as pumpkin seeds): Pumpkin seeds contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps increase serotonin levels, promoting relaxation and sleepiness.
Whole grains: Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates that can help increase serotonin levels and promote better sleep.
Herbal teas: Chamomile tea and other herbal teas contain natural compounds that promote relaxation and sleepiness.
Take a look at this article about food and sleep for more information.
If you have an older child, make sure they avoid caffeine, including energy drinks.
Ensure your child is getting enough magnesium in their diet. Magnesium is essential for calming the body and brain (it keeps the nervous system healthy). Many children are deficient in magnesium in the UK. As well as foods, putting Epsom salts in a bath or using a “magnesium spray” directly on your child’s skin can raise magnesium levels.
Check that your child is getting enough omega 3 in their diet. Omega 3 essential fatty acids help us produce melatonin, the sleep hormone. Research shows increasing omega 3 can increase length and quality of sleep. (Omega 3 also improves concentration). As with magnesium, many people are deficient in the UK. It’s possible to take a supplement eg fish oil, flaxseed oil or algae oil capsules as well as increasing the amount in the foods your child eats.
9. Try Not to Worry
Sleep is of course vital for emotional and physical wellbeing. Poor sleep can significantly affect our quality of life. However, just because things are bad now, does not mean they will always be bad. Sleep problems are common at various stages of a child’s development. My daughter had terrible sleep for many years, but now as a teenager she’s sleeping much better, happy and functioning very well.
You can only do your best. You may be dealing with your own lack of sleep and other life stresses, so be kind to yourself.
There is absolutely no right or wrong way to improve children’s sleep, though I do suggest ensuring that punishment and shaming are never part of your parenting style. You need to think about what best suits your parenting philosophy and your current situation, as well as your child’s temperament and emotional needs.
The best solution for you is to start with the strategy from above that feels most manageable. Don’t try to do it all at once. Using your chosen strategy, stay persistent and consistent. Ideally, monitor your progress using a note book and my free sleep tracker.
Buzzing Before Bedtime? Anxiety or Overstimulation
If your child seems overactive or wide awake at bedtime, it could be a result of overtiredness or anxiety. It’s that “running on an empty tank” sensation. Worries or deep thoughts can become rampant at night when children have quiet time to reflect. These can trigger anxiety. Try a worry diary or a worry box.
A worry diary is simply a note book kept by the side of your child’s bed. Every time they have a worry they write it down. Once out of their head, encourage them to put it aside until the morning. This can create a great sense of relief and allow the mind to be at peace.
A worry box is almost exactly the same. Your child can decorate a special shoe box and make a little slot in the top. Worries can be written down on little pieces of paper or post-it notes, and posted in the slot. Once posted, the worries can be put aside.
If your child is buzzing at night and you don’t think it is down to deep thoughts or worries, then your child may be chronically overtired. You will need to follow the strategies in this article, paying particular attention to lifestyle factors (regular sleep and wake times, diet, exercise). It will take a few weeks for the effects of your hard work to show, but you will start to see your child becoming noticeably calmer in the evenings. This will lead to more, and better, sleep.
In the meantime, calm a busy brain by doing ten minutes of Mindfulness, for example using the apps Calm or Headspace. Mindfulness will also teach your child how to “respond rather than react” to thoughts or worries. Your child will learn to become an observer of their thoughts rather than reacting automatically to them. As an observer, they will be able to choose whether/how to respond, and will feel more in control.
How to Find More Help for Sleep Problems in Children
If your child’s sleep isn’t improving despite your best efforts and you’re concerned there might be an underlying reason, consult with your doctor or healthcare provider.
Your family doctor may refer your child to a paediatrician, who will check for underlying causes of the sleep problems. They may consider medications such as melatonin (a synthetic version of the hormone we produce in our bodies to trigger sleep).
The paediatrician may also refer your child to a sleep clinic who will be able to offer specific and individualised sleep solutions.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.