Your kids WANTS to sleep — but sometimes they just can’t. Here’s how to deal with child sleep anxiety and help kids fall asleep and stay asleep.
“Don’t shut the door!”
“It’s so dark in here!”
“Please don’t leave!”
“I just can’t sleep.”
Do you hear any of these phrases at night when you’re putting your child to bed?
When your child won’t go to sleep, it can be both exhausting and frustrating because it affects everyone in the family. When one kids is awake, sometimes that means EVERYONE is awake.
In those moments of frustration, you might catch yourself thinking — Why are they so scared of nothing? Why won’t they just go to sleep?! It’s OK, we’ve all been there.
Here’s the thing: your child wants to sleep. They really do!
It might seem like your kids have inexhaustible energy, but I promise they don’t really have super-powers. Your child needs sleep. But sometimes they just can’t.
Interestingly, sleep issues and fear of the dark might not actually be about sleep or the dark itself – rather, problems sleeping can be symptoms of anxiety and stress.
6 Ways to Ease Sleep Anxiety in Children
Just like in adults, sleep anxiety in children can be caused by feelings of powerless or lack of control in certain situations. However, they might not want or know how to tell you that they’re feeling worried or anxious.
Instead, they’ll say things like, “I can’t sleep” or even “my stomach hurts.”
The game-changer with our own daughter was finding things that make her feel empowered.
While they might not specifically fix an outside situation that is causing her anxiety (which might also be out of my control as well), the following tricks help give her a feeling of control over herself and her environment.
This, in turn, greatly alleviates the stress that is keeping her awake at night.
1. Make Your Child’s Bedroom a Safe Place
Of course your house is probably the safest place your child can be, and you know that. But I’m not referring to safety in such a physical/literal sense.
Instead, consider whether your child’s room is a haven for them from the outside world (even from the rest of the house).
Is it a place where they can have quiet time if they become over-stimulated? Is it a place where they have some degree of control over their surroundings?
The first thing we did is to make sure that my daughter’s room is a safe place in her mind.
It is not a place for punishment, but rather it is a place where she can recharge, have time to herself, and set her own boundaries for being around other people. It is decorated in her favorite colors and she displays her most special possessions as she sees fit.
This way, my daughter views “going to her room,” even for bedtime, to be a positive thing.
2. Create a Calm Environment
Reducing the chaos in your child’s room can help reduce their overall stress. My daughter likes things to be very orderly and in their “place.” When her room is messy, I have noticed that she is uneasy, so every evening we tidy up and put things where they belong. This ability to control her environment is so important in creating a sense of empowerment that will counteract anxiety.
Another contributor to “chaos” is the presence of electronics. There are no televisions, computers, etc. in our children’s rooms because these are all distractions to sleep.
3. Stick to a Consistent Bedtime Routine
Children thrive on routines because while so many things in life are unexpected, routines are predictable and safe. A significant bedtime routine (ours takes about 30-45 minutes) also signals your child that you are in the wind-down stage and gives them adequate time to do so.
We do our bedtime tasks in the same order every single night: bath, pajamas, brush teeth, bedtime story. The girls love knowing and calling out the next step. We finish with a bedtime story which is of course the favorite part.
Our girls actually love getting ready for bed because we have made the routine fun and it is something in which they are active participants.
4. Take Time to Listen to Your Child
When your child is anxious, it could be an ongoing issue that you’re aware of; however, it could also be caused by a specific incident. Maybe there was an encounter with a bully at school earlier that day. If you want to know what is worrying your child, don’t assume – ask.
Knowing that you care and that they have been heard will comfort to your child. It also allows you to reassure them and discuss possible solutions to problems that might be affecting more than just their sleep (and problems you may not have been aware of yet).
After you’ve finished your bedtime routine, sit down with your child and invite them to talk to you about whatever is on their mind, good or bad.
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5. Look for Sleep Aids to Help Your Child Sleep Better
When I say “sleep aid,” I don’t mean medicine or anything like that, but rather tools that can help your kid fall asleep or feel more comfortable.
Comfort items are something your child can look to for extra reassurance, again giving them something they can do to soothe fears and negative emotions.
These are a few of the sleep aids that have been very helpful for both my daughters:
- Night light (my daughter loves this projectable night light because she can see her favorite characters)
- Special stuffed animal or blanket to snuggle as they fall asleep
- Guided meditation recordings or soft music
- Lavender essential oil (We purchase all of our essential oils through DoTERRA; click here to read more about why I chose DoTERRA plus 12 of my favorite everyday uses for essential oils)
- Aromatherapy essential oil diffuser (Our girls love this cute little diffuser with changing color LED nightlight; it’s also a humidifier which can help with breathing and allergies)
- Books about anxiety — this reading list from kids book expert Lauren at Happily Ever Elephants is full of great options to help kids deal with anxiety and get past their worries.
- Weighted blanket — Our youngest daughter especially loves the feel of a weighted blanket. It helps her fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer!
6. Empower Your Child So They Can Self-Soothe
Self-soothing is usually mentioned when you’re talking about baby sleep regressions or even toddlers, but it helps older kids sleep better too.
Fear and anxiety are rooted in feelings of powerlessness, so one of the best things you can do is to empower your child. Give your child a way to feel like they are in control of their emotions.
For your family, this might mean saying a prayer asking for a restful night’s sleep and relief from worry. Or you might prefer to guide your child in saying positive affirmations, along the lines of:
“I did my best today. I give myself permission to relax. I feel peaceful. I will now slip into restful sleep.”
Encouraging your child to take deep breaths as they fall asleep can also help the process. These are all tools that your child can use throughout the rest of their life to self-soothe.
When Dealing with Child Sleep Anxiety Remember This
Your child wants to sleep. I said it earlier in the post, but I want to repeat it because it is so important! Kids need sleep, they want sleep. Sometimes they just need extra help to make it happen.
The above tips might not all work for every kid, as every child and every situation is different. However, I hope that these will provide a starting point and help your family like they did ours.
- This post was originally published on Jun 21, 2016; updated July 2019.
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There isn’t one cure-all to help an anxious child sleep, and it might take time to figure out what works best for your child. However, if you go through the checklist above, I am confident that you will find positive benefits.