“But I’m not tired!”
“What about the monsters in the closet?”
“I heard a noise under the bed!”
When you have kids, you come to expect that they will find any excuse to avoid going to sleep. After all, many little ones have FOMO and are convinced you’re having wild parties with the entire cast of “Paw Patrol” after they nod off. However, for some kids, nighttime anxiety is real. In fact, it’s estimated that 20-30 percent of kids have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep all night due to worry and anxiety. Those worries can range from the proverbial monster in the closet to fear about nightmares, bedwetting, or uncertainty about what is going on in the world around them.
Although this anxiety and difficulty sleeping is normal, it doesn’t have to keep the whole house awake. Sleep is vital to kids’ overall health and well-being, and you can help yours get that all-important rest by helping them manage their anxiety before bed.
How to Help Your Kids Get to Sleep Worry-Free
1. Maintain a Routine
A consistent bedtime routine not only helps your kids feel secure, it sets the stage for sleep. Following the same routine, every night (such as bath, brushing teeth, and a story) will eventually trigger feelings of sleepiness and their brains will automatically shift into bedtime mode.
2. Turn Off Screens
Establish a “no-screen” rule a few hours before bedtime. Watching TV or playing games can get kids wound up, but the effect of the blue light is even more concerning. The light emitted by TVs and tablets can disrupt the natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and in turn, keep your kids awake. Instead, get ready for sleep with stories, or non-electronic toys to help reduce anxiety and support sleep.
3. Acknowledge Worries
After a long day, you might be eager for “lights out” and a chance to relax. But don’t rush through bedtime, or brush off your child’s anxiety. Spending a few minutes snuggling and talking can help your child feel more secure and ready for sleep. Give them a chance to share what’s on their mind. They might be looking for encouragement, a few words of wisdom, or just the chance to talk. You might also consider aiming to end every day on a positive note. While you tuck your child in, ask them to tell you what the best part of the day was, or to list a few things they are thankful for.
4. Address Their Fears
Some kids need a little extra help to feel less anxious. This might mean turning on a nightlight, playing soft music, or making sure they have their favorite stuffed animal or blanket nearby. You might also help them manage their fears by having them give their worries to a special toy or doll to hold while they sleep. Some parents even help keep “monsters” away with a special spray — just a spray bottle filled with water — that they spray into the closet or under the bed before sleep. Anything that can ease your child’s mind and help them get to sleep is fair game, even if it involves a little magical thinking.
5. Set Bedtime, Not Sleep Time
For some kids, the harder you work to make them fall asleep, the more they will resist you. Since you can’t make your kids fall asleep, and getting upset or frustrated when they don’t can only make the problem worse, focus on bedtime, not sleep time. At bedtime, they have to go to bed. You’ll go through the bedtime routine and turn out the lights, and let them know it’s time for rest. Don’t insist they immediately fall asleep. Let them read in bed with a reading light, talk to their stuffies, or play in bed until they nod off. By allowing them to self-regulate, they’ll fall asleep more easily and have less anxiety about it.
If your child has bedtime anxiety no matter what you try, then talk with your pediatrician. They may have additional suggestions or want to look into your child’s sleep habits to determine whether there is a health issue keeping them awake. Getting to the root of the problem can help everyone get more rest, and stay happy and healthy.
Robyn South is the Outreach Manager for the Sleep Advisor, a website that covers everything related to sleep, from mattresses to the newest science behind technology and wellness breakthroughs.