Sleep problems for children

Common sleeping problems children might have

There are many reasons why children resist going to bed or wake up during the night. Check out some of the most common ones, and strategies for managing them.

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On this page, you can find information about:

  1. Bedtime resistance is when children stall or refuse to go to bed at the right time.
  2. Delayed sleep is when a child goes to bed later than they should.
  3. Some children are unable to go to sleep at the start of the night or fall back to sleep overnight without a special thing or activity. This is called sleep association.
  4. Children with insomnia have difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep and/or waking up early in the morning.
  5. Nightmares are frightening dreams that usually wake your child up completely.
  6. Night terrors are when a child wakes suddenly with a loud scream or cry and they often stare straight ahead and look terrified.
  7. Anxiety can prevent some children from getting a good night's sleep.
  8. Children with restless legs have an uncomfortable feeling in their legs when trying to fall asleep or during the night.

Bedtime resistance

Key points about bedtime resistance

  1. Establish a regular bedtime to help set your child's internal body clock.
  2. Putting children to bed when they are not tired increases the chances of bedtime struggle.
  3. A bedtime routine should include calm and enjoyable activities, such as a bath and bedtime stories.
  4. Ignore your child's complaints or protests about bedtime, such as not being tired.
  5. It's important that you leave the room while your child is still awake.
  6. If your child gets out of bed or comes out of their room, firmly and calmly return them to bed.

Read more about bedtime resistance. 

Delayed sleep

Key points about delayed sleep

  1. Management of  'delayed sleep' depends on its cause.
  2. Good sleep habits are especially important for children with delayed sleep.
  3. Whatever the cause of delayed sleep, children end up going to bed later and waking up later in the morning.
  4. Setting a regular morning wake up time can help.
  5. Morning light is helpful in establishing an earlier bedtime.
  6. Daytime napping or sleeping can contribute to delayed sleep.

Read more about delayed sleep.

Sleep association

Sleep associations happen when your child learns to fall asleep with a certain object or activity. Changing sleep associations is all about teaching your child to fall asleep by themselves, without that object or activity.

Key points about sleep association

  1. Sleep associations occur when your child learns to fall asleep with a certain object or activity.
  2. Changing sleep associations is all about teaching your child to fall asleep by themselves, without that object or activity.
  3. Establish a consistent bedtime routine that includes calm and enjoyable activities.
  4. Avoid exciting, high-energy activities or watching tv before bed.
  5. Make sure your child’s bedroom environment is the same at bedtime as it is throughout the night.

Read more about sleep association.

Insomnia

Key points about insomnia

  1. Good sleep habits are really important for children who have problems falling asleep.
  2. Teaching your child ways to relax can help them fall asleep.
  3. You can help your child have good thoughts about going to sleep rather than bad ones.
  4. Remove the clock from the bedroom, as your child may be watching it during the night.
  5. To get on top of insomnia you can temporarily set your child's bedtime later.

Read more about insomnia. 

Nightmares 

Nightmares are bad dreams that are usually related to worries your child may have. 

Key points about nightmares

  • The best thing that you can do if your child has a nightmare is to comfort them.
  • Following most nightmares, your child will be reassured by a few minutes of comfort.
  • Let them know that you are nearby and will make sure that they are safe and secure.
  • Most children are still tired after a nightmare and will be ready to fall back to sleep.
  • Avoid frightening or overstimulating images, especially just before bedtime.
  • Having a security object like a soft toy or blanket that your child can keep in bed with them can be helpful.
  • If your child's nightmares are severe, speak to your family doctor, school nurse or counsellor or paediatrician.

Read more about nightmares. 

Night terrors

Night terrors happen when children are only partly aroused or woken from deep sleep. They can be very frightening for parents and carers.

Key points about night terrors

  1. Night terrors are scary to watch but usually harmless to children.
  2. The most important thing to do when your child has a night terror is to keep your child safe.
  3. Generally, nothing is gained by trying to wake a child up during a night terror.
  4. To encourage a return to normal sleep, guide your child gently back to bed.
  5. Try to resist comforting your child during a night terror.
  6. Night terrors are more likely to happen on nights when your child goes to sleep at a different time than usual.

Read more about night terrors. 

Sleep and anxiety 

Anxiety is probably a common cause of difficulties settling to sleep at both the start of the night and overnight. Find out about strategies you can use to help your child.

Key points about sleep and anxiety

  1. Anxiety is probably a common cause of difficulties settling to sleep at both the start of the night and overnight.
  2. You can help by trying to understand your child's fears.
  3. Acknowledge that being scared or worried is normal and that all people feel scared or worried sometimes.
  4. Avoid scary TV shows, including the news or videos, or stories that may add to your child's fears.
  5. Teach your child skills to get over their fears.
  6. Teaching your child to relax can help them to fall asleep at bedtime.

Read more about sleep and anxiety. 

Restless legs syndrome

Children with restless legs have an uncomfortable feeling in their legs when trying to fall asleep. If your child has restless legs, find out how you can manage this.

Key points about restless legs syndrome

  1. Children with restless legs have an uncomfortable feeling in their legs when trying to fall asleep.
  2. The cause of restless legs is not known but it can run in families.
  3. Children with restless legs may describe the feeling as a 'creepy/crawly' or 'pulling' feeling.
  4. There is no single test for restless legs syndrome but sometimes tests are needed to rule out other reasons for sleeping problems.
  5. Change your child's bedtime routine so that your child does not get into bed until they are ready to fall asleep.

Read more about restless legs syndrome in children. 

Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Health Navigator NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative.
Credits: KidsHealth NZ.