When you have a baby, you sort of expect to not sleep well for a while. Or at all, let’s be honest. Babies work just a bit differently than we do, and their sleep/wake patterns need to be established. Plus there’s the whole eating in the middle of the night thing. The disrupted sleep can continue through toddlerhood. But typically, kids will grow out of it and start to normalize around age 4. But a lot of parents find that just isn’t the case with their kiddos. We expect to deal with sleeplessness in our kids when they’re babies and toddlers, but what do you do when your school-aged kid won’t GTF to sleep? If your kid is fighting bedtime or isn’t getting enough shut-eye, there could be a good reason.
1. Maybe your kid isn’t sleeping because they’re kind of a jerk. Totally possible! But maybe they’re having trouble sleeping because of a physical or medical reason, like apnea or snoring.
My oldest snored SO LOUD. And then her breath would catch in her sleep, and she would do that weird choking/breathing thing. She woke frequently during the night, and always woke up exhausted in the morning. I mentioned it to her pediatrician, who sent us to a pediatric ENT, and lo and behold, my poor kiddo had enormous tonsils that impeded her ability to breathe. She had borderline sleep apnea, which still terrifies me when I think about it.
We had her tonsils and adenoids removed, and the improvement in her sleep and breathing was immediate. If your kid snores, or seems to have trouble breathing while they’re sleeping, it’s worth bringing it up to their doctor and having it checked out. Breathing difficulties can lead to not getting enough deep sleep, which can impact they’re behavior and overall health.
2. Another reason for sleep issues in older kids: sleepwalking.
This one can be scary! My kids don’t sleepwalk (they do talk in their sleep, which is hilarious), but my younger brother did. That little shit peed on my shoes one night while sleepwalking. It’s estimated that anywhere between 20-40% of school-aged kids are sleepwalkers. Karen Ballaban-Gil, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore says the culprit may be incomplete sleep-stage transitions, which allow the brain to remain in deep sleep while the body is awake.
If you’ve got a sleepwalker, you’ll probably just have to wait for them to grow out of it. And they probably will! But make sure to keep the floor in their rooms free of debris so they don’t trip, and you may want to think about child-proof locks on the windows and high-set deadbolts on the doors. You’ve probably heard it’s a bad idea to wake a sleepwalker, but you can gently guide them back to bed.
3. Adults aren’t the only ones who lie awake at night riddled with anxiety. Anxious kids can have a hard time falling asleep, too.
Sure, they probably have different worries, like whether or not they’re popular or doing poorly on a test. But plenty of kids struggle with anxiety, and it can really impact their ability to sleep. If your child is tired but won’t close their eyes to settle down, or suddenly develops physical ailments at bedtime, anxiety may be the culprit. Or maybe your kid freaks out over the idea of sleeping alone, or cries when they’re left in their room at bedtime.
The most important thing to remember when dealing with an anxious kiddo at bedtime is not to berate or get angry at them. Try to help them work through their worries before bedtime, with one-on-one talk time. Some kids benefit from writing out their fears and worries in a journal before bedtime, sort of as a way to leave it all on the paper. Be reassuring, and try to assuage as many of their anxieties as you can. And if it gets to the point where your child’s anxiety is impeding their daily life, it might be a good idea to talk to their doctor, and look into therapy.
4. Not getting enough physical exercise during the day can make it harder for a child to sleep at night.
Active kids are tired kids! This certainly doesn’t mean you have to schedule the crap out of your kiddos so they fall into bed out of sheer exhaustion. Too many extracurricular activities can hurt kids more than they help them. But, if your kid is spending half the day at school and the other half of the day in front of the TV or laptop, it can seriously affect their sleep. Shahriar Shahzeidi, M.D., is an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami. He says, “Exercise produces brain chemicals that promote sleep and relaxation”, which means your kids will be more ready for sleep when the time comes.
Make sure your kiddos are getting enough physical activity during the day. If they’re not involved in a sport or activity that gets them moving, kick them outside in the afternoons and let them run around. Or maybe start a family exercise routine in the evenings. Yoga is a great way to get your kids physically active, while helping to calm them down at the same time.
5. Our best friend/archnemesis: SCREENS. Too much screen time before bed is messing up their natural sleep/wake cycles.
I know, I KNOW. The screen time debate is insane, and we hear something new every damn day. But whatever your feelings are about screen time for your kids, too much before bedtime is a bad idea. A recent study showed that kids who have too much screen time before bed gets less sleep, and have an increased risk of having a higher BMI. Screen time can disrupt their natural sleep/wake cycles, making it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.
I’m not suggesting ditching screens completely (unless that works for you!). My kids are allowed screen time, so I’m not riding the ban-wagon. But limit screen time in the evening, and shut it down altogether at least 45 minutes before bed time.
We all need sleep. As parents, we’re used to not getting it! But if your kids aren’t getting the sleep they need, it can be detrimental to the whole family. Hopefully, once your kid’s sleep stuff gets sorted out, that means more rest for the weary (we are the weary).