Problems with sleeping can cause fatigue, stress and frustration for children and their parents. Some common complaints parents have about their child’s sleep include:
- Whingeing or refusing to go to bed
- Feeling scared sleeping by themselves
- Sleeping in their parents’ bed
- Taking a long time to fall asleep or waking frequently throughout the night
- Being “wound up” with their worried thoughts prior to bed
- Leaving their bed and not wanting to return
- Having irregular and unstructured sleeping patterns
- Calling out from their bed, crying or screaming throughout the night
- Having fears about the dark, ghosts, monsters or robbers that interfere with getting to sleep
- Night terrors
Treatment for child sleeping problems
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) equips parents with the following skills to address their child’s sleeping problems:
Establish a bed-time routine
Children will often be more compliant when there is a daily, predictable structure where they go to sleep and awaken at the same time every day. Additionally, it is important that in the lead up to sleep, children’s minds and bodies are not overly stimulated.
Giving clear instructions for what behaviour you expect will help children to know what is expected of them. It is also crucial that parents work together with their spouse or other significant carers to use consistent strategies. When rules have been established (e.g., going to bed at a set time, returning children to their bed if they move into yours, ignoring calling out, etc), try to enforce these each time.
Goals and rewards
It can help to give children specific goals to work towards. Building these goals into a reward system can motivate children further to change their behaviours. Once there are rewards, having appropriate consequences can also help.
Acknowledge and address children’s worries
Children who have difficulties sleeping often have particular fears or worries that make sleep difficult. These worries often appear at the end of the day as they are winding down and starting to relax. These may be fears about the dark, monsters, nightmares, or separating from their parents. The worries could also be about other issues such as friendships or school. It is important to talk about these worries with your child in a way that helps them feel like you understand. You can later help them to problem solve what to do about the worries. This also applies to instances when children are distressed after a nightmare and find it hard to fall back asleep.
Some children find it hard to “switch off” or may have many thoughts running through their minds. These children usually benefit from using relaxation strategies in the lead up to bed time. There are various types of relaxation strategies, such as breathing, relaxing different muscle groups, or visualisation. At first, they may need to be guided through these step by step, but with practice, children will find it easier to do this independently.
For children who become very anxious when separating from their parents and sleep on their own, working on gradual steps towards sleeping on their own is the most effective way to help them overcome their fears.
With consistent use of psychological strategies, such as those outlined above, many sleep difficulties in children can be resolved as quickly as 1-2 weeks. If the problems persist longer than this, parents may benefit from discussing the issues with a psychologist to work out the barriers to effectively managing bedtime behaviours. It is important to note that sleep problems can also occur in the context of anxiety, depression, bullying, or stress, and when these issues are treated separately, sleep can improve.
For older adolescents, also see our page about sleeping problems in adults as many of these strategies can also apply to adolescents.
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for sleeping problems in children, or to book an appointment with one of our child clinical psychologists who provides treatment for these issues, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.