Sleep Anxiety in Children

Behavior & Development • Aug 10, 2015

Sleep Anxiety in Children: 10 Ways to Stop the Worrying & Get Your Child to Sleep

Is your child too worried to sleep? Twenty to thirty percent of school-aged children struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep all night. Anxiety is a common culprit. When kids don’t sleep, parents don’t sleep, and your whole household becomes an overtired, cranky mess. Here are 10 ways to end the worries and help everyone sleep better. 

For some kids, the major cause for worry is the fear that they won’t be able to sleep. Some kids even start worrying about sleep hours before bedtime. Or they wake up in the middle of the night and start worrying that they won’t be able to fall back asleep — and so they don’t. Yes, it’s irrational thinking, but trying to talk reason into your child usually doesn’t work in this situation. Instead, break the worry cycle and help your child learn to fall asleep. It’s a skill that will last a lifetime.

Try these techniques below, and please leave a comment about what finally worked with your child — you will help another family sleep well.

  1. Don’t skip the pillow talk: Sit on your child’s bed or snuggle beside them and talk about whatever is on their mind. Set limits — when you say it’s time to go, it’s time to go. Don’t give in to whining about “don’t leave” or “sleep with me all night.” Tell your child in advance that you want to spend some special time with them but that you can’t stay too long. Then listen. Try not to talk too much. Sometimes the listening alone will allow your child to solve their own worries. Every once in a while you get a chance to give them the wise words they need to hear, and you’ll be their hero.
  2. Allow your child to self-regulate his or her bedtime:  Your job as a parent is to put your children to bed– not to make them go to sleep. Keep wake-up time consistent with an alarm clock. If a child can’t sleep, allow him or her to read in bed. Keep the room lights dim or off. If your child needs a reading light, buy a clip-on LED reading light.
  3. No screens before bed: Avoid all digital devices for at least an hour before bed, preferably two hours. The blue light emitted from screens can inhibit the body’s natural melatonin release. Here’s my true confession of what happened when I tried putting my toddler to bed with an iPad.
  4. Consider melatonin: Short-term melatonin supplements can be an effective way to get a child’s sleep cycle back on track. Melatonin is a natural substance produced by our bodies that gives us that “oh so sleepy” feeling. You can also trick your body into natural melatonin release by keeping lights dim and blocking natural light before bedtime. Melatonin can help kids fall asleep. But it doesn’t do much for kids who wake up in the middle of the night. There are risks and limitations to melatonin use, and you should talk to your pediatrician before using this over-the-counter supplement. For more on melatonin use in children and the associated risks, please see my article, “Kids, Sleep and Melatonin.”
  5. Teach your child to give their worries away: There is a tradition in Guatemala of teaching children to give their worries to little colorful dolls called worry dolls or trouble dolls. Children can tell the dolls their worries and then put the dolls under their pillow. According to legend, the dolls then worry for the child while the child sleeps peacefully. You can buy these inexpensive dolls online, or just use the same idea of teaching your child to “give away” his or her worries to an inanimate object such as a stuffed animal or a doll you already own.
  6. Routine, routine, routine: Remember that toddler bedtime routine of bath, brushing teeth, story, etc? Your school-age child still needs a bedtime routine. Find what works for your family and stick to it.
  7. Don’t skip the story:  A bedtime story can refocus your child’s mind in a positive, imaginary world, and help them forget their worries. Reading out loud to children has been shown to improve vocabulary and be beneficial to development, and bedtime is a perfect time to read to kids. Find a book your whole family will enjoy — I still remember my mom reading The Hobbit to me and my brothers before bed.
  8. Get rid of the stimulants: Avoid caffeine and energy drinks, and beware of hidden stimulants in chocolate and second-hand smoke. Anxiety and sleeplessness are side effects of many medications, including over-the-counter cold medications and ADHD medications. If you think your child’s medications are part of the problem, be sure to call the prescribing physician before you stop them.
  9. Regulate the fluids: Getting up in the night to use the bathroom is a common sleep disturbance. It seems simple, but your child might just need a reminder not to drink anything after dinner (except while brushing teeth), and to use the toilet before bed. If your child suffers from bedwetting, Dr. Kirstin Lee has some excellent tips to conquer this common problem and wake up dry.
  10. Call your pediatrician: Your primary care pediatrician will help you rule out medical causes of sleeplessness and anxiety, including sleep apnea, allergies, snoring, medication side effects, and much more. Your pediatrician can also provide anxiety medications and may be able to treat uncomplicated anxiety without a referral to psychiatry. If necessary, your pediatrician can make a referral to a sleep center for a sleep study or other tests.

Are you tired? Here’s what sleep deprivation does to parents. We’ve also put together tricks to keep toddlers in bed and help infants sleep through the night. If you have a teen that struggles with anxiety and depression, you are not alone. Here is the research on American adolescent stress and depression and what parents can do to reverse the trend.


  1. As a father, I really appreciated this post. I liked your tip about not skipping the pillow talk. Sometimes when I’m pretty tired out I usually just skip pillow talk, but I can see how it would be important not to do that. Thanks for sharing.

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