Sleep Anxiety in Children: 10 Ways to Help Your Child Get Quality Sleep
If you’re a parent or guardian, then this may be a familiar scene: After another long day, you’re finally ready to watch some Netflix and wind down before hitting the sack. However, just as you’re about to start your show, you hear familiar footsteps padding down the hall. Your child approaches you to say that they can’t sleep because they feel scared.
This may not be the first time that this has happened. Sleep anxiety in children is a common occurrence, where fears and anxieties prevent young ones from getting a good night’s sleep. This is a tough challenge for any parent or caregiver, especially if it is a persistent problem. Understanding the causes and symptoms of this type of anxiety is essential in helping your child.
What is Sleep Anxiety in Children?
Sleep anxiety is a common condition that growing children often deal with. While adults are all too familiar with lying awake in bed and waiting for sleep to kick in, children may find the same experience to be strange and sometimes scary.
Children may be confused and unnerved by the anxious feelings preventing them from sleeping. This makes it equally frustrating and difficult for adults to understand. This can lead to lack of sleep for children, resulting in feelings of crankiness and exhaustion the next day. In some cases, sleep anxiety can occur night after night and cause your child to be more tired and dysfunctional as the issue persists.
What Causes Sleep Anxiety in Kids?
There are many factors that can cause sleep anxiety in kids. Some may have sleep issues while others struggle with overthinking and constant worrying. Other children may have chronic nightmares, a fear of the dark and monsters, or they may be dealing with difficult life events such as family conflict or bereavements.
Older kids who have sleeping anxiety are often high academic achievers and perfectionists who lack sleep due to a demanding workload. These kids worry about how the lack of sleep might affect their work, which in turn makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep. Trouble sleeping may lead to more negative thoughts or even fears about sleeping itself.
Kids who are diagnosed with ADHD and autism may also experience more anxieties than other children. Racing thoughts and focusing too much on stressors or worries can make it difficult to calm their minds down and finally fall asleep.
Sleep Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Sleep anxiety manifests as different symptoms in children. Some of these include the following:
- Getting out of bed and calling for you
- Waking up in the middle of the night and needing help to sleep again
- Sleeping at irregular times
- Refusing to sleep in their own bed
- Feeling very anxious about sleep
When children can’t sleep due to anxiety, they may also experience the following behavioral and physical changes:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Inability to concentrate
- Digestive problems
- Tense muscles
- Rapid heart rate
It can be helpful to use an anxiety symptoms checklist to determine if your child has bedtime anxiety.
How to Help Children with Sleep Anxiety Get Quality Sleep
Helping your child get quality sleep can be challenging. Here are a few tips you can try to ease their anxiety and make a good night’s rest possible.
Talk to your child before bed
When helping your child settle down for the night, take a few minutes to talk to them about whatever is on their mind. They may have worried or anxious thoughts that they were unable to process throughout the day. For instance, some children may also experience separation anxiety at school, which can carry on even when the school day is over. Try to listen and let them do the talking; often, this will let them solve their own worries.
When doing this, remember to set limits. Do not give in to requests of staying by their side the whole night. Doing this routine can help your child relax and get things off their chest, allowing them to settle down and sleep.
Use calming scripts
Using a script that is written specifically to help your child calm down and relax can result in better sleep. Some common scripts focus on not being afraid of the dark. Others are designed similarly to meditation exercises like deep breathing and using tension in the body. There are also pre-recorded scripts that you can play for your child as part of their evening routine. For children who are especially anxious, it may be helpful to incorporate some mental or thinking anxiety coping skills to your scripts.
Establish a bedtime routine
Routines help us build healthy habits that are essential for self-care. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine gives your child a sense of predictability and safety that can help reduce their anxiety over sleep. A good bedtime routine also encourages good sleeping habits that are important for your child’s overall health.
To create an effective routine, start by introducing quiet time an hour before bed. Guide your child through activities that will help them wind down, such as tidying away their toys and turning off all screens. This can be followed by a bedtime story, calming scripts, or your evening talks.
Rearrange the room
A key ingredient to getting a good night’s sleep is one’s environment. Your child’s bedroom may or may not be conducive to getting sleep. For example, there might be spots in the room that are dark and cause fear at night. In some cases, the furniture arrangement could also be improved to make the room cozier. Try moving things around until you create a calming space that your child is more comfortable in.
Too much sugar or caffeine can hamper your child’s ability to fall asleep. Reduce or eliminate their intake throughout the day, especially before bed. Anxiety and sleeplessness may also result from any medication your child is taking, so it’s best to discuss this with your physician if you think that it is making sleep more difficult.
Have a warm relaxing bath
Bath time is a very soothing activity that will help your child relax before going to bed. When adding this to your child’s evening routine, it’s important to keep bath time short so that it doesn’t become stimulating play time. The warm water will help the body cool down and lead to an earlier sleep onset [*]. After the bath, bring your child straight to their bedroom. This ensures that you don’t disrupt the routine.
Give your child a transitional object
If your child is particularly anxious about separating from you during bedtime, then introduce a transitional object to help them cope. This special item helps your child feel like a part of you is still present, even when you are no longer in the room. Choose any item that brings your child comfort, whether it’s a stuffed animal, one of your accessories, or your favorite shirt. Holding it can help your child relax and fall asleep.
Reduce screen time before bed
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to blue light in the evening suppresses melatonin [*], which is the hormone that regulates sleep control. Given this, setting limits on your child’s gadget use at night can significantly improve their sleep. Try making the bedroom a no-gadget zone at night, and reduce phone and tablet use an hour before bed. It can also be more effective to invite your child to do a quiet activity that they like, such as reading, instead of telling them to spend less time on their screens.
Read a book
Certain activities such as reading have been found to improve sleep quality [*]. It also helps to choose a book with the right subject matter. For instance, if your child is afraid of the dark, then it can be comforting to read about characters who have faced their fear of darkness.
Make the bedroom a safe space
Some children may be anxious to sleep because they feel like their bedroom is not a safe space. Your child may recognize their bedroom as the space that gives them negative emotions and sensations, such as restlessness and missing you. This is a common type of anxiety in children, one that relates to specific phobias.
In this situation, it is crucial to reassociate bedtime with feelings of safety, security, and comfort. Start by having a conversation that you are present in the bedroom to make things feel safer. This will help your child form a positive association with bedtime — because they know they are about to be with you. Using a tool like a worksheet on changing negative thoughts can help your child reframe their attitudes and feelings towards the bedroom.
When to Seek Professional Help for Sleep Anxiety in Children?
Child sleep anxiety is a normal experience for many children. However, it is best to seek help if your child’s anxiety over sleep isn’t improving despite your efforts. Consulting a professional becomes necessary if your child’s sleep anxiety is affecting their daily functioning, school life, and relationships with family and friends.
The Bottom Line
Sleep anxiety can be tough to deal with. Fortunately, there are many solutions that can help your child navigate this challenge. Finding the best strategy may require the help of a professional, but it’s worth looking into for a good night’s rest.
- Harding E, Franks N, Wisden W. The Temperature Dependence of Sleep. 24 April 2019.
- Tähkämö L, Partonen T, Pesonen A. Systematic review of light exposure impact on human circadian rhythm. 12 October 2018.
- Finucane E, O’Brien A, Treweek S, et al. Does reading a book in bed make a difference to sleep in comparison to not reading a book in bed? The People’s Trial—an online, pragmatic, randomised trial. 4 December 2021.