From a few days old, parents are trying to figure out how to get their child to sleep. Getting into a routine, learning about their child’s temperament, and trying to nurture a well-rested baby. As the years go on, sleep remains an integral part of a child’s health, development, and well-being.
It can be hard to know if you have a fussy sleeper or a child with a sleep problem. Sleep issues in children affect parents, the whole family, and the child.
By learning to recognize the signs of kids' sleep problems, you can address the issue as early as possible and begin to tap into natural remedies and nurture sleep-supporting habits.
Signs of Sleep Problems in Children
Most people know what it feels like to run on little sleep. Not enough sleep can affect concentration, mood, hand-eye coordination, and more.
Adults and children need sleep not only to function normally but to support all aspects of health. Signs of sleep problems in kids can be behavioral, physical, or emotional.
Poor sleep in children is associated with a host of issues, including academic and social trouble, weight abnormalities, and developmental issues. Sleep problems children face include:
- Restless sleep
- Night terrors
- Delayed sleep phase disorder
When assessing children with sleep disturbance, your doctor will typically ask you certain questions and screen important areas, including BEARS, which stands for:
Even a slight restriction in sleep can affect your child’s daily life. By recognizing signs of sleep issues early on, you can implement effective natural interventions.
Behavioral Signs of Sleep Problems
Most children experience occasional sleep problems, but persistent sleep issues increase the risk of mood and behavior problems, academic failures, and health issues.
Behavioral changes that could point to a child that’s struggling to sleep are:
- Bedtime refusal or resistance - when a child delays bedtime with temper tantrums, protests, and unreasonable requests.
- Night-time awakenings - this is especially when it’s frequent and requires parental intervention to get back to sleep.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep - trouble nodding off to sleep at the right time and staying asleep.
- Sleepiness during the day - this can include trouble waking from daytime naps and inconvenient napping times, like during school.
All these behavioral changes can result in less sleep and impact sleep quality. For instance, one study found that kids experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness were more likely to have learning, attention/hyperactivity, and conduct problems.
Physical Symptoms of Sleep Problems
Physical symptoms of sleep issues in kids to keep an eye on include:
- Breathing difficulties during sleep (such as breathing pauses when asleep)
- Chronic snoring
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Teeth grinding
- Trouble getting up in the morning
- Slower reaction times
If you spot any of these symptoms, it could indicate a deeper sleep problem. It’s a good idea to keep track of your child’s sleep symptoms in a sleep diary so that you can see if there are any changes over time. An individual incident of bedwetting or occasional sleepiness could be a stressful day or difficulty sleeping at night from a cold or illness. But when these symptoms are ongoing, it could be a deeper problem. Either way, it’s always important to speak with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.
Emotional and Cognitive Indicators
Emotional and cognitive signs of sleep problems in kids often come down to mood and school performance, including:
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased school or academic performance
- Memory and learning issues
Research shows that sleep problems or deprivation are associated with a decreased ability to regulate emotions and behavior. Whereas prolonged sleep enhances mood and positive emotion expression and increases sensory processing time.
For children, poor sleep can lead to an array of emotional and behavioral problems. Children who get less sleep are at a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior as adults.
Insomnia in Kids
Signs of insomnia in children include:
- Taking a long time to get to sleep
- Making a lot of excuses before bed
- Waking up earlier than desired
- Frequent and prolonged nighttime awakenings
- Difficulty napping
- Trouble sticking to an age-appropriate sleep schedule
- Struggling to wake up in the morning or get up for school
These symptoms focus mainly on getting to sleep and throughout the night. But there are other daytime symptoms of insomnia in children:
- Problems at school
- Behavioral problems
- Mood changes
- Low motivation
- Social or family problems
Natural Remedies for Insomnia
Natural interventions for insomnia often revolve around creating a consistent and repetitive bedtime routine. Natural remedies are drug-free methods to help support a healthy sleep cycle, like:
- Encouraging relaxing activities before bed, like deep breathing or gentle yoga.
- Limiting sugar intake, especially close to bedtime.
- Establishing a consistent routine and sleep schedule (like having a bath before storytime).
- Restricting time spent in bed to sleep only (no watching TV or doing homework in bed).
- Avoiding screen time before bed.
- Creating a comfortable bedroom conducive to sleep.
Night Terrors and Sleepwalking
During a night terror, a child can wake up screaming, and it can be tough to comfort them back to sleep. It can feel like the child doesn’t know you’re there, and eventually, they tend to go back to sleep and not remember all the chaos by the morning. Causes of night terrors include fever, sleep deprivation, noisy sleep environment, and certain medications.
Signs of a night terror include:
- Sitting up straight
- Screaming or shouting
- Thrashing around
Sleepwalking is different as it involves your child getting up, walking about, and acting like they are awake, but they are asleep. Kids are more likely to sleepwalk if a close family member does or if they are overly tired, sick, or stressed out.
Symptoms of sleepwalking in children include:
- Don’t respond to you
- Have a glassy or blank-looking expression
- Either don’t speak at all or don’t make sense when they speak
- Walking about or trying to perform normal activities.
- Seem confused
- No recollection of sleepwalking in the morning
Natural Remedies for Night Terrors and Sleepwalking
If you have a walker or child experiencing night terrors, the first step is to minimize any hazards in their bedroom that could cause an accident during sleepwalking.
Next, if your child experiences night terrors or sleepwalking after high-stress days or when very tired, ensuring enough sleep can help prevent triggers. By focusing on creating a calming bedtime routine while finding ways to reduce stress it can help to set your child up for a peaceful night’s rest.
Bedtime Resistance and Delayed Sleep Phase
Bedtime resistance is when children do everything possible to postpone bedtime. You have probably heard all the excuses for why your child should stay up a little longer. Crying, excuses, unreasonable requests, and tantrums can all show up. Possible causes of bedtime resistance are:
- Separation anxiety
- Screen time before bed
Sleep problems can also be from delayed sleep phase, a sleep disorder. It means that the sleep pattern is delayed by two hours or more, which makes it difficult for children to fit in with standard school times.
Natural Remedies for Bedtime Resistance
To handle bedtime resistance, start by creating a consistent sleep schedule. Whether it’s a school day or a weekend, the sleep schedule should remain the same.
If your child is diagnosed with delayed sleep phase, it may help to gradually adjust their sleep schedule to fit a more appropriate timeline. A fixed bedtime helps children develop a good internal body clock. Avoid energetic activities before bed, like running outside or watching TV. Instead, try calming activities like reading and listening to gentle music.
Sleep Environment Discomfort
A child’s sleep environment plays a big role in creating a relaxing and sleep-inducing space. Alongside bed sharing, the quality of the child’s sleep space and home environment are the most important predictors of sleep in early childhood. Poor quality sleep environment is associated with shorter sleep duration and later sleep times.
Natural Remedies for Sleep Environment Discomfort
Creating a calm environment that’s conducive to sleep helps to minimize sleep environment discomfort and promotes a relaxing night. Here’s how:
- Lighting - a child’s bedroom should be dark and quiet; use blackout curtains if necessary.
- Temperature - between 68° and 72°F is a cool but comfortable temperature for sleep.
- Noise - loud noises in the night may impact sleep.
- Bedding - the bed area should be clean and comfortable.
- Gadgets - keep tablets, phones, TVs, and other devices out of the bedroom.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)
The main symptom of restless legs syndrome (RLS) in children is an urge to move legs, especially around bedtime and in the evening or after long periods of stillness. Your child may use words like aching, tingling, or itchy to describe the feeling. RLS is an uncontrollable urge to move legs in response to discomfort or pain. Risk factors of RLS include caffeine, iron deficiency, chronic illness, genetics, and certain medications.
As RLS impacts a child’s ability to sleep or stay asleep, it can lead to:
- Bedtime resistance
- Falling asleep during the day
- Sleep disorders
- Tossing in bed
- Behavioral issues (like anxiety, poor concentration, and hyperactivity)
Natural Remedies for RLS
RLS is often worse at night, so add stretching and gentle leg massages to your bedtime routine. The discomfort can come and go, so it may not happen every night.
Consider adding foods high in magnesium and iron, as strong evidence suggests deficiencies in magnesium may contribute to RLS. Try adding the following foods:
- Beans (like chickpeas and kidney beans)
- Dried fruits (apricots and prunes)
- Pumpkin seeds
While children need to get as many nutrients as possible from their diet, it’s not always the easiest option. Consider safe and natural children’s supplements with magnesium so that even with a fussy eater, you can hit all those vital sleep-boosting nutrients.
Addressing Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety and stress can majorly impact children’s sleep. Anxious kids may struggle to fall and stay asleep.
There are several reasons why children may feel anxious or stressed, including:
- Family breakdowns
- Starting school
- Big changes
- Fear (darkness, being alone, monsters)
- Sleep issues
Natural Remedies for Anxiety and Stress
Natural ways to reduce and manage stress and anxiety include:
- Relaxation techniques - try mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and yoga.
- Open communication - have an honest conversation with your child about their worries.
- Daily exercise - physical activity is essential for mental health.
- Nutrition - consider daily vitamins that support kids’ good mood.
Parental Involvement and Support
Supporting children through sleep challenges can feel like a daunting task for any parent. Sleep issues in kids are common, but with patience, sensitivity, and consistency, you can be on the path to better sleep for the whole family.
By developing a bedtime routine, encouraging daytime activity, and getting those sleep-supporting nutrients, you can support a healthy sleep schedule. Offer reassurance and let your child know just how close you are if they do need extra support during the night. Help your child to wind down naturally and develop a calming routine for a peaceful night so you can begin to work through sleep problems.