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How To Help Ease Sleep Anxiety In Children

How To Help Ease Sleep Anxiety In Children

Most of us can probably remember at least one time in our childhood when we felt anxious and fearful at bedtime. Maybe it was a fear of the dark. Maybe we shouldn’t have watched that movie or read that book our parents specifically told us we were too young for.  

As a young child, it’s easy to let the imagination run wild. We imagine creatures that aren’t really there or envision monsters in the closet. Anxiety at bedtime can have a variety of causes, outside of make-believe monsters and dark rooms. 

Regardless of the cause, the fear and anxiety are real. Left unchecked, it can rob children of the essential sleep they need to grow and develop. 

Thankfully, there are some ways to help ease sleep anxiety in children. Here, we provide some of the top tips that may help.

A Look at Sleep Anxiety in Children

Dealing with sleep anxiety in children can be exhausting for both the child and the parent. Getting them to sleep is a chore, getting them to stay asleep can be even harder. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that roughly 25 to 50 percent of children deal with some type of sleep problem, sleep anxiety among them. 

Clinically, sleep anxiety is defined as feelings of stress, worry, or fear about going to or falling asleep. It is considered a sleep disorder. In adults, sleep anxiety is generally associated with apprehension and anxiousness about not being able to fall asleep (or stay asleep). 

Fear and Sleep Anxiety

The same can be true for children. However, sleep anxiety is strongly tied to fear, more so than in adults. As a universal emotion, fear is experienced by every person at some point in their life. As adults, we are usually able to manage fear better than children — but not always. 

Typically, fear arises when we perceive some sort of threat. The fear can be rational or irrational. This threat could be real or imagined (e.g. branches ominously swaying in the breeze or a suspected monster in the closet). It can be an emotional, psychological, or physical threat. But, that doesn’t matter at the end of the day, fearfulness is real to us when it happens, regardless of the cause. 

For children, it could be the fear of sleeping alone in a darkened room. It could be the fear of having scary dreams or hearing unknown noises. 

Young children, ages 4 to 6, have great imaginations and love to pretend. Unfortunately, this imagination can also lead to fears at bedtime, which are completely normal childhood fears.

Grief and Sleep Anxiety

Childhood grief and bereavement can also play a part when it comes to sleep anxiety. This could be from the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling, or a close loved one. Grief affects everyone differently and children react to it in many different ways, depending on their age. 

The inability to sleep is not uncommon when it comes to grief in children. Typically, this stems from the fear of being alone or separated from loved ones. It could be the loss of a parent who used to tuck them in, and now the void is filled with anxiety and fear. 

Other Causes of Sleep Anxiety

Sleep anxiety in children can also be the result of some sort of traumatic event experienced by the child. Also, if a child feels unsafe it can also breed feelings of anxiety at bedtime. 

At the end of the day, the exact cause is important to pinpoint so as to start the process of overcoming it. The negative effects that sleep anxiety can have on a child’s sleep health are important to understand. 

Losing Sleep with Sleep Anxiety 

Every human being on the planet needs sleep to function. It’s so important that we spend one-third of our lives doing it. Sleep is a health imperative. It is essential for both our physical and emotional health and well-being. 

Sleep is restorative, helping to repair cells and restore energy. It’s necessary to keep our immune system well-balanced and in tip-top shape. Also, it plays a pivotal role in the storing of new information and the consolidation of memories. 

Sleep also has an effect on our mood, for better or worse. During sleep, the brain is still busy producing regulatory hormones, many of which have a direct impact on our mood and emotional state. 

The lack of sleep, i.e. sleep deprivation, throws all of these important functions off, which could lead to health issues and mood disorders. This is one of the concerns for children dealing with sleep anxiety. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is recommended that children get between 9 to 14 hours of sleep per day, depending on age. 

  • Toddler (ages 1 – 2): 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day
  • Preschool (ages 3 – 5): 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day
  • School-age (ages 6 – 13): 9 to 11 hours of sleep per day

When Children Don’t Get Enough Sleep

The role that sleep plays in the development of young bodies and young minds cannot be overstated. Sadly, many children aren’t getting enough sleep, and sleep anxiety is one reason for this, among many. 

For children, the role of sleep is crucial, it impacts:

  • Alertness and attention
  • Cognitive performance
  • Resiliency and mood
  • Learning and memory

Chronic sleep deprivation among children can disrupt many of these important developmental processes. Mood is also affected. 

Every parent has witnessed the effects of poor sleep on their child’s mood and behavior, swinging back and forth from grumpy to hyper and everything in between. 

Even minimal sleep disruptions can have tremendous impacts on a child’s day, especially their cognitive functioning. Chronic sleep deprivation can also put them at risk for developing health conditions in the future. 

Poor sleep can also disrupt normal immune function, leaving them open to more sniffles and sickness. 

Sleep anxiety is one of the major reasons that many children are getting the adequate sleep they need at night. Thankfully, there are some ways to help ease that anxiety. 

7 Tips for Kicking Sleep Anxiety Out of Bed

Sleep anxiety is a real issue for many children. Though the reasons for it vary from child to child, it typically stems from an issue with some sort of fear. Thankfully, there are some great tips to help ease your child’s sleep anxiety. Let’s take a look.

1. Help Them Overcome Fears

Oftentimes, sleep anxiety in children is the product of some sort of fear or worry. Getting to the bottom of this fear and worry is important if finding ways to cope with it is the goal. Figuring out what is causing the nighttime fears and anxiety is the first priority. 

Begin by listening

The easiest way to uncover the fear culprit is by simply asking your child why they feel anxious, scared, worried, or afraid at bedtime. It is a time to listen, not assume. This is a great time to ask open-ended questions about the potential causes of nighttime anxiety. 

Take it seriously, too, and leave the laughing and joking aside. You might think it trivial, but your child doesn’t. Think back to a time you were genuinely anxious or afraid, would you want someone you cared about making light of it, not taking it seriously?

Be supportive, but don’t support imaginative fears

We always want to be supportive of our children, but that doesn’t mean we support or validate irrational fears or make-believe monsters. 

Yes, these imaginary fears and creatures in the closet might seem real to them, but validating them does them a disservice in the long run, and typically delays bedtime even longer. 

2. Reassure and Encourage

Rather than telling your child that you’ll destroy the monster and take care of the “bad guy” (validating the fears), it's best to reassure them instead. Reassure them that they are safe, even after you tuck them in and walk out of their room. A gentle, firm hug wouldn’t hurt either. 

It is also a great time to encourage them, to help instill self-confidence. The easiest way to do this is by teaching them that they have control over their own thoughts — they’re in charge of them. Self-confidence goes a long way when you’re learning to overcome fears. 

Tip: If sleep anxiety and fear keep your child up, it's best to stay in their room with them, rather than bringing them to your room. They need to be taught that their bed and room is both a safe and comfortable space.

3. The Sleep Pod for Kids

Children dealing with sleep troubles often experience feelings of restlessness when it comes to falling asleep — they simply can’t get relaxed. Thankfully, the Sleep Pod Move for kids is designed with relaxation and better sleep in mind.

Using the therapeutic principles and theories behind Deep Touch Pressure Stimulation, the Sleep Pod uses gentle compression to help aid relaxation and relieve feelings of restlessness at bedtime. 

Made from a specialized 4-way stretch material, the cocoon-like shape of the Sleep Pod Move is made for mobility, allowing total feet freedom most kids want. 

4. Establish Good Bedroom Routines

Establishing and sticking to a good bedtime routine is essential to help ease feelings of anxiety when it’s time to go to sleep. Typically, this should begin 30 minutes to an hour before lights out. 

This includes all the standard hygiene stuff: getting a bath, brushing teeth, combing hair, etc. The key to any good bedroom routine is consistency. Children feel better when they know what to expect — that’s why predictable routines are often used in schools. 

Find some ways to wind down

Making the transition from the fun of the day to bedtime is tough for some kids. The key is to find activities that promote relaxation. It’s a great time for a family read-aloud from a favorite book. Bedtime should be associated with warm, happy times. 

The bedtime routine is up to you, but avoid activities that stimulate (e.g. video games, TV, etc.). The idea is to calm down, not get amped up. 

The absolute foundation to bedtime routines is sticking to the same bedtime. Establishing regular sleeping patterns is better for sleep health. That means going to bed and waking at the same time every day — even the weekends. 

5. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Having good sleep hygiene habits in place is crucial for setting yourself up for better sleep — the same goes for your child. 

Sleep hygiene simply refers to healthy sleep habits, including the things you do (and don’t do) before bed and during the day. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is one example already given above. 

Here are some other examples of good sleep hygiene to consider:

  • Use the bed for sleeping only. Non-sleep activities shouldn’t take place in the child’s bed. Train the body (and the mind) to associate the bed with sleep only. 
  • Keep the room cool, but not cold. A cooler room promotes better sleep. Typically, the optimal temperature for sleeping is about 65 degrees, give or take a few degrees depending on preference. 
  • Be predictable. As stated briefly above, make the entire bedtime routine predictable, from putting on pajamas to getting tucked in. Knowing what to expect helps ease feelings of anxiety. 
  • No sugary snacks or caffeine before bed. Heavy meals, and meals laden with sugar are a no-no at least three hours before bedtime. Also, avoid soda and sugary drinks, too, including fruit juice. 
  • Let them fall asleep in bed. Put kids to bed when they’re drowsy, but still awake. Allowing them to fall asleep in other places is only forming bad habits. 
  • Allow comforting objects. Children like to hold, hug, and cuddle with certain objects (e.g. stuffed animals, blankets, etc.). They help provide security when the parent isn’t in the room.  

6. Have Fun in the Sun

A restful night is dependent on the day that came before it. If you napped half the day away don’t expect to get a restful night’s sleep. Getting in some physical playtime during the day is essential for children.

Just like exercise for adults, physical activity and play help children burn calories and energy. This is great come bedtime. 

We’re talking at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day — an hour would be better. In short, when kids wear themselves out through play, they’re too tired to worry. 

It is important for them to soak in the sunlight, too. Exposure to daytime light helps promote your body’s normal sleep-wake cycle. 

7. No Screen Time Before Bed

One of the most important things to do to help ease anxiety at bedtime is to forgo screen time. Yes, this may be tough, but it is important. 

Screen time includes most entertainment electronics and digital devices, like TV, computers, tablets, smartphones, and yes, video games. 

One issue that could be causing sleep anxiety (and adding to worry and fear) is scary shows or video games. Sure, kids might think they’re fine while watching or playing, but that changes when the lights go out and they’re alone. 

Avoiding the blue light 

The biggest reason for avoiding electronics, especially those with back-lit LED screens, is the presence of blue light. The blue light emitted from these electronics has been shown to affect the circadian rhythm of the body, disrupting the sleep-wake cycle.

Conclusion

Feeling sleepy isn’t the hard part for most young children — going and staying asleep can be the tough part. Sleep anxiety in kids can have multiple causes, with fear of sleeping alone being most prominent. Thankfully, there are some easy ways to help ease their anxiety — but remember, consistency is key. 

 

Sources:

Diagnosis and Management of Common Sleep Problems in Children | AAP

Normal Childhood Fears (for Parents) - Nemours | Kids Health

Sleep Regulation, Physiology and Development, Sleep Duration and Patterns, and Sleep Hygiene in Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children | NIH

Emotional and Cognitive Impact of Sleep Restriction in Children | NIH

Sleep Hygiene for Young Children | Seattle Childrens

The Color of the Light Affects the Circadian Rhythms | NIOSH