Sleep is so important for your child's development and wellbeing. Here's a parents guide to dealing with sleep related issues amongst children of all ages, from babies to teenagers.
Any smart parent knows the importance of healthy, high-quality sleep for their kids. Unfortunately, children's sleep can be riddled with problems that are all too common.
In this article, we dive into what’s normal, what’s an issue and tips to combat problems that may arise as your child grows.
Sleep is a treat for parents of infants, and high-quality sleep is a similar treat once your child grows up. Babies aren’t born with healthy, or even measurable sleep habits, and they may not develop a real sleep cycle for up to a year. Some young children continue to wake up frequently at night when they’re almost school-age.
Infants and young children need to have a solid, healthy sleep schedule as early as possible for the best possible results.
For example, when they lack REM sleep they may suffer cognitively. They’ll also be inclined to sleep more during the day but in shorter bursts, and a lack of REM sleep leads to stress and other issues, the older the child gets.
The longer these issues go on, the harder it’ll be to fix them in the future. Babies are constantly learning, and the habits they learn in infancy or early childhood are the ones they’ll have to unlearn later, and we all know unlearning is much harder than learning.
It’s best to get working on that healthy sleep schedule as soon as your baby is born, as challenging as dealing with a newborn’s irregular sleep pattern is.
Getting them to learn night from day is vital, although they’ll likely wake up frequently during both. For more advice on your baby’s early weeks, check out these tips from nct.org.uk.
Although newborns lack a circadian rhythm, it starts developing quickly, shortly after the second month, and you may notice your infant sleeping and waking on a semi-regular pattern between the ages of three to six months.
If you haven’t been putting in the work to regulate sleep already, this is the time you want to do it. Some people anecdotally say that if an infant has sleep troubles at six months old, they’re more likely to continue into toddlerhood and even beyond.
This is a tender age and you may be inclined to worry that something is wrong. In this section, we’re going to cover what’s natural, what’s common the best things to avoid with your infant.
Babies spend most of their time sleeping. In fact, once infants reach the age of two, they’ve been asleep more than they’ve been awake.
Even as they age into pre-school or play-school age, most children have been sleeping for 40 percent of their life.
Newborns obviously need to wake up to feed, but as nighttime feedings become fewer you may expect your baby to start sleeping in longer blocks.
Unfortunately for you, your baby may not start sleeping through the night for up to a year, but some may start at around 6 months old. Every baby is different.
You can expect the baby to wake up at least once or twice a night for a while, and even after they start sleeping through the night they may start waking again.
According to Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, babies develop more self-awareness between the ages of 6–9 months, so might wake up in the night just to feel more independent, explore sounds and observe their surroundings.
The list of sleep issues this age group faces is long, and mostly impacts the infant sector of it. Toddlers may experience these issues too.
Most of these issues are common knowledge and anecdotal universally, lacking studies and sources—parental word of mouth can be stronger than any peer-reviewed study on babies, though!
As we go through these issues, we’ll also advise on how to fix them.
Babies seek comfort in their parents, and may lack the ability to self-soothe until they get older.
So, babies may fall asleep while held but wake as soon as they’re placed down. Stay with your baby after they’re placed down to help them learn to fall asleep without being held.
Some babies are natural night owls. Lacking a circadian rhythm, the day and night are the same to them, or sometimes they swap them in their heads.
Part of this may relate to their life in the womb. The mother’s movement during the day gently rocked the baby to sleep, leaving them free to stay awake at night when the body was still.
Try engaging your baby during the day and limiting daytime naps as much as possible. Don’t engage in play at night and try leaving your baby alone in a darkened room as soon as the sun goes down, or at the time you set for bedtime. This should get the issue resolved, or at least help with it a bit.
We mentioned how babies may start waking again, even after starting to sleep through the night, at 6–9 months.
These sleep regressions can happen at any time as your baby learns new things and wishes to stay awake more to explore their surroundings, their new skills, or even their teeth.
This regression will always be temporary, so stick with a regular sleep/wake schedule and things should be back to normal soon enough.
Everything is so new to babies, so it’s natural that you waking them up at night would get them alert, interested, and hesitant to go back to sleep. This may occur during nighttime feedings or changes.
Try to keep feedings and bottom changing, or other reasons for waking your little one, as relaxed as you can to avoid fully arousing your infant, toddler or child.
From infanthood to early childhood, your little one may develop separation anxiety. It’s natural, they love you so much that they want to be with you all the time. Although it’s heartbreaking, you have to let your child know that they can sleep without you.
Babies don’t put up much of a fight when it’s time to sleep, what else have they got to do? But toddlers and young children have plenty of adventures to go on, and a mind and determination stronger than steel.
They may not want to go to sleep, so they’ll make the bedtime routine drag on forever and then refuse to sleep.
You need to be firm here, stating that it’s time to sleep, perhaps offering a reward if they sleep all night and get up at the right time. What child doesn’t want to wake up to their favourite breakfast?
Not to mention, kids will just be too tired to learn, play with peers and live life in general.
It’s vital that kids sleep well and steadily throughout the night for the reasons above, and because their natural sleep rhythms are changing.
For example, kids are spending less time in REM sleep which is one of the two reparative sleep stages. Because of this, perfecting the time spent in deep and the remains of REM sleep have never been more important.
Unfortunately, kids don’t always have the best sleeping routine thanks to school.
It’s widely stated that school start times aren’t the best for children and teens. In the US, there were experiments where school started later, and it proved beneficial for the kids.
Not only are school start times not perfect, but the holidays can impact a child’s sleep schedule, too. This is partially down to parents who let their kids go to bed later and sleep in, too, which isn’t great for keeping their sleep schedule perfectly healthy.
Once the school year starts again, it’s a sudden switch back to the old routine, which can be quite jarring.
So, once back to the old schedule, kids end up staying awake later in bed naturally, thus not wanting to wake in the morning. That leaves them drowsy throughout the day.
Try keeping your kids on a solid sleep schedule even when school closes for the summer to help combat this. But, keep in mind, there are some instances of kids sleeping late or during the day that isn’t an indicator of overtiredness, they’re completely normal.
So, if you come across your child napping during the day, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy—although they may be overtired. If they’re overtired then it’s an issue you need to combat separately.
Most of the time, though, naps are just a harmless way to bring energy levels back up after a long day or tiring activity.
Kids require more sleep than adults—about 10–11 hours for 7–12-year-olds. So, wanting to sleep late in the mornings is lateral if the child stayed up very late.
Try to keep your child on a regular sleeping schedule and eliminate distractions in the bedroom to discourage them from staying up late on their own. For examination, turn off the WiFi at night, keep their toys in another room and don’t let them have a TV in their room.
It’s worth keeping an ear out for your child late at night, too, to ensure they’re not breaking the rules and staying up late.
If your child is sleeping late without a good reason, though, then it’s a cause for concern and you should consult your child, or possibly your family GP.
In 2018, The Guardian reported on a study performed at Millpond Sleep Clinic detailing the rising anxiety levels in kids and teens.
Anxiety in kids usually comes from school pressure, peer pressure and perhaps the things they’re seeing on social media. It’s worth talking to your child and watching out for the symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
Luckily anxiety is treatable and compatible with the help of talking, professional help and in extreme cases, medication.
Lack of adequate physical activity or mentally stimulating exercises during the day can lead to children having pent-up energy they need to expel. This can keep them up at night.
Try playing educational games with your child and encouraging them to get out, run around and stay active during the day. That way when night comes they’ll be all tired out.
Children in the UK aren’t getting enough exercise and it’s leading to a whole host of problems. Don’t let your child develop them and nip this issue in the bud before it’s too late.
Sleepwalking is an issue itself, and it can lead to others. Not only does it stop your child’s body from resting, but it puts them in physical danger if they end up getting into any mischief outside their bedroom.
This practice is caused by parasomnia, which about 1 in 5 UK kids have leading them to sleepwalk. Most children outgrow this, but it’s treatable in sleep clinics of it’s severe.
Make conditions safe for your child by keeping floors clear, windows and doors locked, as well as keeping dangerous objects like knives out of reach. Consider child-locking drawers and cupboards.
When you notice your child is sleepwalking, don’t wake them. Simply walk them back to bed as gently as you can.
Sleep apnea is more prevalent in adults, but some kids have sleep apnea or at least a mild version of the disorder.
This disorder causes people to stop breathing in the night, so they have to wake up to resume breathing. This disturbs their sleep and leads to daytime tiredness.
If you suspect your child has sleep apnea you should consult your GP, and they’ll likely refer your child to a sleep clinic.
The condition’s symptoms may be hard for you to detect, but the disorder is easily treatable once you’re aware of it. Likely causes include;
Everyone knows that kids frequently experience nightmares. This is natural, they’re young and have more extreme fears which manifest once they fall asleep.
Unfortunately, these dreams can keep kids up at night, haunt them during the day, and make them fear sleep.
Talk to your kids about their fears, eliminate triggers from their waking life as much as possible and ensure your child knows they’re safe.
The blue light that screens emit can interfere with sleep, impacting your circadian rhythm. In fact, this sleep issue can occur in anyone from school to adult age.
Try limiting your child’s screen time before bed and encourage breaks from screens throughout the day—like 20 minutes of outdoor playtime for every 20 minutes of TV, online gaming or other screen-related activity.
Finally, we come to teens, who have a sleep cycle most like adults. They still need slightly more sleep than adults, but they’re getting there. They also have a slightly different circadian rhythm that makes them want to stay up late and sleep later in the mornings.
Schools tarts early so this sleeping in is often just is a distant dream—in fact, school times dictate that teens need to be up early, and the other pressures of life often make it so that teens can’t go to bed early to get enough sleep.
They need to deal with school, homework, home life, possibly a job, their social lives, and their additional activities.
Sleep deprivation is rampant in UK teens, and in teens all over the world. Some teens also have delayed sleep phase syndrome, making it almost impossible to fall asleep before it gets very, very late.
As teenagers are pretty much mini-adults, there’s not much they do that makes you question, “Is this normal or is something wrong?”
The most you’ll be questioning is your teenager’s want to sleep late, which as we displayed above is natural, based on the circadian rhythm differences.
If your teenager wants to sleep all day, however, that’s an issue you should talk to them and a doctor about. It may be a sign of mental illnesses like depression.
In the largest sleep study ever performed in the UK, there were a high number of adolescents aged 16 and up taking part. The results from each age group weren’t stated separately, nor do we know how many 16–18-year-olds took part.
Still, what we do know is that 30 percent of those surveyed have some kind of sleep disorder and that people with insomnia have a higher likelihood of:
Again, we can’t state how many adolescents fall into that 30 percent in the UK. However, we do know from another study elsewhere in the world that teenagers have approximately the same rates of insomnia as adults.
It’s not news that obesity and sleep are interlinked, with a lack of the latter revealing a prevalence in the former. However, being overweight also plays a role in children’s sleep.
Children who were overweight had less deep sleep as shown in this study, which isn’t’ great for their development. Getting adequate sleep in all four stages of the sleep cycle is intrinsic to the body’s development and overall health.
Like younger children, teenagers often aren’t physically active enough during the day to tire themselves out, so they’re up all night.
Luckily teenagers are mentally stimulated—we discussed that earlier based on the demands for their time. But these activities often keep them chained to a desk doing homework, or to a counter during their part-time job in retail or something similar.
Then, finally, they’re free and they’re mentally exhausted and all they want to do is relax and watch TV or play games. But this is still a lack of physical activity that creates that pent-up energy that prevents sleep.
Teens are on social media more than kids, they’re texting their friends more than kids, and their homework often demands they watch videos, online presentations or do research.
Plus, you can’t exactly tell your teen they can’t have their phone at night—they need it for their alarm and in case of emergencies. You can at least shut off the WiFi, but their phone plan gives them data they can use to stay up!
Encourage an open, healthy conversation with your teen where you request they spend less time on their devices. Instead of texting, suggest they call their friends, wear headphones and put the phone down so they can keep their eyes focused on something else during the call.
You could also encourage your teen to read more rather than watching TV and playing games.
These groups are vastly different, but there’s some general advice you can apply across them to encourage healthy sleep and a correct sleeping/waking schedule.
Set a specific sleep and wake time for your child based on your schedule (for infants) or theirs. Ensure they wake up at the same time every day, go to sleep at the same time every night, including on weekends and during holidays. Will it cause fights? Maybe, but it’s for the child or teen’s own good.
Show them the studies that show it’s healthiest for them to stick to a schedule. They can’t argue with evidence! And though they may try, that’s to be expected. Who’s ever heard of a teen that doesn’t try to argue with mum and dad on everything, eh?
Although children and teens are highly independent, it doesn’t mean you should stop engaging with them like they did when they were infants. Encourage activities that get their energy out.
Play games with your babies, organize a day out in the park with your kids, consider getting your teen into highly active hobbies that don’t suck away all their free time.
The activity doesn’t have to be running and jumping all day—even encouraging them to learn an instrument like the guitar keeps them somewhat physically active, and they can come and go from it as they please.
Try to keep your child’s bedroom free of distracting elements, apart from those that bring comfort. Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature, too, and always ensure the lights can go fully out and the noise that gets in is to a minimum.
If your child or baby is afraid of the dark, get them a nightlight but one that’s a soft, yellow light and that’s not too bright.
As for your teen, consider getting blackout curtains and a lamp that lights up as it wakes them. Though their circadian rhythm tells them to stay up late and wake up later, you can try and force it into thinking the blackout curtains signal late night, and the lamp says it’s late morning.
Dealing with babies, kids and teens is difficult and there’s a mountain of issues that come up in every aspect of their young lives.
Hopefully, now you can tell what’s normal and what’s not, and you can apply the tips provided to find comfort, routine and finally, some better sleep for you and your family.
Disclaimer – The advice above should not be considered medical advice and is meant to provide an overview of the kind of sleep issues children can face. If you are at all concerned about your child, no matter what age, always consult your GP.