How to Help Kids Get the Sleep They Need

Going into parenthood, we’re told to expect some sleepless nights. But what we don’t usually bargain for is that sleep challenges can last well beyond the baby years. It’s not something that is widely researched, reported, or even discussed, but even “big kids” struggle with sleep. And yes, that includes including middle and high schoolers.

It’s not just you: Many kids aren’t getting the sleep that they need

If you are in the “my kids won’t sleep” boat, you’re far from alone. As of the most recent data available from the CDC, the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) has shown that sleep inadequacy remains a significant issue among children in the United States.

According to the 2020–2023 data, about 37% of children aged 4 months to 5 years and 34% of children aged 6-12 years are not getting the recommended amount of sleep. The situation is slightly better among teenagers, but still concerning, with 31% of adolescents aged 13-17 years not getting enough sleep​ (CDC)​​ (HRSA)​.

How does sleep deprivation impact kids?

It’s not just moodiness and temper tantrums that result when kids are sleep-deprived. “Kids need sleep to grow their bodies and brains,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine psychologist.

“Poor sleep can decrease their immune function, make them more prone to physical and mental health problems, and impair their cognitive function and academic performance.”

“Lack of sleep can even simulate ADHD symptoms, so sometimes parents think their kids can’t sleep because they’re ‘wired,’ but really, this hyperactivity is a sign that the kids desperately need sleep,” Wu describes.

Tips for tackling sleep issues in kids

If you’re like most parents with a sleep-deprived child, it’s not as though you haven’t tried to make sure your child gets the sleep that they need.

In fact, most of us have tried everything we can think of to get our kids enough sleep…from instituting super-strict bedtimes to eliminating sugar to singing every lullaby in the book.

Set strong sleep fundamentals

The fundamentals that matter most when it comes to ensuring a good night’s sleep include:

  • Not getting overtired or overstimulated
  • Consistent sleep-wake schedules
  • Good nutrition and exercise during the day
  • A predictable and consistent bedtime routine that doesn’t include screens
  • Making sure bedtime is not too early or too late

Be consistent

Getting kids to sleep well means being consistent, using evidence-based techniques, and giving those techniques time to work. Parents try tips they find online. Many parents test an approach and then give up when they don’t see immediate results.

Remove stress and anxiety from bedtime

As many adults know, sleep and stress do not mix.

Stress can make it hard to fall asleep and having trouble falling asleep can be stressful — a self-perpetuating cycle.

“You might say, ‘Listen, you’ve got to get to sleep or you won’t be healthy, you won’t make the basketball team, you’ll do badly on your math quiz,’” This anxiety gets transferred from you to your child, and can lead to trouble falling asleep.

Being more mindful about how you frame bedtime for your child — and taking off the pressure — can make a huge difference.

Stop announcing bedtime

“It’s time for bed!” you gingerly announce at 8 p.m. sharp. Your child’s response? For many parents, this triggers an instant battle or lengthy negotiation. If bedtime turns into a battleground every night.

“The idea is to transfer the responsibility for announcing bedtime from you [the parent] to something else, so you don’t have a power struggle with your child,”. That could mean programming a certain lamp to turn on or off at bedtime, or cueing up specific music to play — anything that routinely signals it’s time for bed.

“You can also give your child a small responsibility at the beginning of the bedtime routine, such as putting their favorite toy to bed and kissing it goodnight,”. The idea is that by giving your child ownership of bedtime — and not making it about your own needs — many of the bedtime battles should diminish.

Adjust your expectations (and possibly your child’s bedtime) to suit your child

Many times when parents complain about their child’s sleep, they’re misconstruing the situation. “For the vast majority of kids who have sleep problems, it’s not a kid sleep problem,”, “It’s a parent expectation problem.”

Fix drawn-out bedtime requests with a pass system

Many children learn that they can prolong bedtime by making actually falling asleep a play in seven acts: one more kiss, one more blanket adjustment…

“Give your child one to two nighttime ‘passes,’” “Each pass buys them one request, and they get to decide how to spend it (e.g., spend one pass at bedtime to request one additional story, spend another one overnight to request some water).” These nighttime “passes” tend to reduce the number of “curtain calls” and nighttime requests.

Be sure your child’s room is sleep optimized

Study after study proves that sleep is improved when a bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet, and the same is true for kids. Nightlights (or full lights), loud noises from adults’ nightly binge watches, or a stuffy room can hinder sleep. Additionally, many parents underestimate the need for a supportive bed. Since kids need their sleep more than adults, and are growing and developing rapidly, a supportive bed is more important than ever.

When to see a pediatric sleep specialist

Sometimes, no matter what you try, your child still doesn’t seem to be getting the sleep they need.

If you’re concerned that your child may have a sleep issue, Here are few common signs of sleep problems in kids:

  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Excessive hyperactivity during the day
  • Snoring
  • Frequent bedtime power struggles
  • Frequent awakenings at night
  • Sleep problems that cause a lot of stress or interfere with family functioning

If this describes your child, contact a pediatric sleep specialist, or a health professional who diagnoses and treats sleep disorders in children.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to seek support. Even if your child doesn’t have a serious sleep condition, we all could use a little help when it comes to sleep.



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