Getting enough sleep is essential for child development – it plays a crucial role in maintaining your child’s mental and physical health, directly effecting their mood, cognitive function, learning, memory and much more.
However, if you’re a parent or caregiver, you probably know that getting kids to go to sleep (and stay asleep) isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Lots of children and young people find it difficult to sleep at night. They might struggle to settle down or wake up at various points in the night – disrupting not only their sleep, but yours too! Children who are short on sleep are also more prone to hyperactivity, irritability and emotional dysregulation, impacting their day-to-day life both at home and in school.
If you’re finding yourself wondering, ‘is there a reason why my child doesn’t sleep?’ – you’re not alone. To help, we’ve compiled a list of some of the possible underlying causes to help you identify the reason behind your child’s sleepless nights.
Their Basic Needs Aren’t Met
As simple as it sounds, making sure your child’s basic needs are met can play an important role in ensuring they rest soundly.
Things like needing the toilet or being thirsty can prevent your child from falling asleep easily. These unmet needs also risk waking them up at night, disrupting their sleep cycle and making falling back asleep again more challenging. This can apply for both younger and older children – all of whose sleep cycles can easily be disrupted if they have unmet needs.
To avoid this happening, try to make sure their needs are fully met before they go to sleep. One way of doing this is by incorporating it into their bedtime routine, like having a nightly ‘check-in’ with your child as they are getting ready for bed. During this ‘check-in’, you can ask them if they need the toilet, some water, or anything else that might help them in the night.
They Don’t Have Good Sleep Hygiene
Many people say ‘my child won’t sleep!’, without realising how important maintaining good sleep hygiene is in helping children fall asleep.
Sleep hygiene refers to the lead-up and routine around your child’s bedtime. This means the various steps you and your child take to get them ready for bed – like brushing their teeth, getting into their pyjamas, and being read a bedtime story.
Having good hygiene is essential for helping children fall asleep and stay asleep. However, when children have an inconsistent or poor bedtime routine, this can quicky cause issues.
Good sleep hygiene means:
- Having the same bedtime each night
- Having a predictable, calming bedtime routine
- Limiting the use of technology before bed
- Limiting heavy food intake at least 2 hours before bedtime
- Avoiding taking too many naps during the day
- Avoiding caffeine and sugar consumption in the late afternoon and evening
- Avoiding any exciting or over-stimulating activities before bed – like pillow fights.
- Engaging in calming, quiet, relaxing activities before bed – like a warm bath or reading.
Children should also be encouraged to only use their bed for sleeping. Lying in bed during the day or doing other activities in bed can make it difficult for the brain to associate the bed with sleep, making it harder to fall asleep at bedtime. This also means you should avoid using the bedroom as a place for punishment, like ‘time-outs’, as this can discourage children from viewing the bedroom as a good place to be.
Similarly, if your child is struggling to sleep and is tossing and turning in the bed, it’s often better for them to get out of bed for a while. While this might seem counterproductive, tossing and turning in bed can encourage the brain to associate the bed with sleeplessness.
Instead, have your child get out of bed and do something calming and not too stimulating – like reading a boring book, or counting sheep. Once they feel sleepy again, they can return to bed.
Their Sleep Environment is Being Disrupted
We all know how difficult it can be to fall asleep in the wrong conditions. Your child’s sleeping environment should be a place where they feel safe and calm. If your child’s bedroom doesn’t have the right environment, they may have trouble falling asleep.
There are a few things to consider when it comes to assessing your child’s sleep environment:
- Light. Is it too dark, or too light? Some children prefer sleeping in total darkness. Darkness can help the production of melatonin (an essential sleep hormone), which is why your child may sleep better with blackout blind. On the other hand, some children may have be afraid of the dark, and need the aid of a nightlight or stuffed animal to help make them feel safe.
- Noise. The wrong kind of noise – such as noise from a TV, or street noise – can easily disrupt sleep, keeping your child up or waking them throughout the night. Limit the amount of noise in your child’s bedroom by installing soundproofing curtains or playing white-noise or calming music to help them fall asleep.
- Temperature. Surprisingly, temperature is one of the most important factors affecting sleep. A sleep environment that is too hot or too cold can cause increased restlessness and wakefulness in children, decreasing REM sleep and causing a myriad of issues. Your child’s bedroom should be cool (approximately 18°C) to ensure they can get a good nights sleep.
There is a Psychological Cause
Sleep is closely connected with mental health. If you feel you’re doing all of the things listed above, but your child is still experiencing restless nights – there may be an underlying psychological issue.
Most children will likely experience psychological sleep disturbances – such as stress, anxiety, separation anxiety , fear of the dark, or nightmares – at some point in their life. These psychological issues can be caused by many things, including stress, attachment issues, trauma, changes in routine – or even just an over-active imagination.
Mindfulness activities like yoga or meditation can help children unwind and clear their mind before bed, as well as encouraging children to talk openly about their feelings.
However, while some children may grow out of things like nightmares, there are other psychological issues that may continue to disrupt their rest if not treated properly. If you suspect your child is suffering from a psychological issue that is causing them distress and impacting their wellbeing, it’s important you seek professional guidance as soon as possible.
As well as speaking to a GP, you can get guidance from one of these services:
- Samaritans: call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day), email [email protected], or check your local Samaritans branch
- MIND: call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (weekdays from 9am-6pm)
- YoungMinds Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (weekdays 9:30am-4pm)
They Have a Health Issue
Sometimes, health issues like snoring or sleep apnoea can prevent children from falling or staying asleep. Although snoring is most common in older adults, many children are known to snore too.
Snoring is generally quite easy to recognise, due to the snorting or rattling sound that is made when some people are asleep. Snoring can be caused by a range of reasons, from seasonal allergies, to colds, to a deviated septum.
Light, occasional snoring should not raise any health concerns. However, if your child’s snoring is affecting their sleep, they may be suffering from primary snoring – the first stage of disordered breathing that can interrupt sleep quality, without posing any serious medical consequences.
If your child snores loudly, has start-and-stop breathing and is restless at night, there’s a chance they may be experiencing a condition called sleep apnoea. This occurs when the airways are blocked by enlarged tonsils and/or nasal tissues, and often requires medical intervention.
If you suspect your child is suffering from a health condition that is disrupting their sleep, its important you seek professional guidance from your GP – they will be able to advise you on the next steps to take, including treatment.
Supporting a child with sleep problems can be hard work and requires a lot of patience. Fortunately, many children grow out of most sleep-related issues as they age. By the time they’re teenagers, you’ll find yourself wondering – can my teenager ever get enough sleep?
Unfortunately, there are still thousands of children in the UK without a safe, secure place to sleep at night. If you think you could provide a child or young person with a loving place to grow up, get in touch with us to find out more about becoming a foster carer.