Sleep problems in children | The signs, symptoms, and solutions

As a parent, getting your child to sleep can be difficult. Whether they’re a toddler or a teenager, a lot of children struggle with bedtime. Thankfully, there are several small changes you can make to your child’s bedtime routine that will make getting them to sleep easier for them and you.

Key takeaways for parents

  • Reinforcing sleep at the same time every day
  • Adapt and monitor how your child’s sleep changes as they get older
  • Limit technology use before bed
  • Include a winding down phase, where you read a story or initiate bath time
  • Use dummies, nightlights, lamps, stories, and sleep aids where applicable
  • If your baby or toddler routinely wakes up, take them back and limit engagement
  • Let them keep cuddly toys and blankets close
  • Keep consistent and don’t compare your experience to others

How much sleep does a child need?

All children are different, but one thing is universal. Children need sleep.

Good quality sleep is vital because the brain and body are developing quickly during childhood. 

Experts recommend you try and make sure your child meets the minimum requirement for their age group each night:

  • 0 - 3 months: 14 to 17 hours, including naps
  • 4 - 12 months: 12 to 16 hours, including naps
  • 1 - 2 years: 11 to 14 hours, including naps
  • 3 - 5 years: 10 to 13 hours, including naps
  • 6 - 13 years: 9 to 12 hours
  • 14 - 17 years: 8 to 10 hours

Common sleep problems in children

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Attachment anxiety
  • Nightmares
  • Waking up in the night
  • Reluctance or refusal to engage with routine
  • Insomnia
  • Bedtime tantrums
  • Difficulty napping
  • Sleep regression

What you can do to help

Top up their vitamin D

Giving your child a regular dose of daylight (ideally sunshine) in the morning promotes a healthy circadian rhythm. This means there’s a better chance they’ll feel tired as the day goes on. 

Combine this with stimulating activity and exercise for even better results. Studies show children who exercise fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer than those who spend long amounts of time sat still.

Keep technology out the bedroom

Avoid screens an hour before bed. Time on screen boosts alpha brain waves, which create alertness, and cortisol (the ‘awake’ hormone) - while suppressing delta waves and melatonin production which are necessary for deep sleep. 

Turning off Wi-Fi can also reduce electromagnetic fields that may disturb sleep.

Get them comfortable

Your child’s bedroom should be quiet and tidy. It should be well ventilated and kept at a temperature of about 16 - 20 degrees Celsius. 

Ideally, it should be dark, but if your child needs a night-light, opt for a red, orange or yellow bulb. Make sure the bedroom is associated with relaxation: avoid rowdy games and noisy toys here

Start a journal or diary

If your child suffers from anxiety, nightmares or fear of the dark try journaling - keep a notebook by the bed so they can jot down or draw what’s on their mind. This helps to file away problems and ‘tidy the brain.’

Avoid overstimulation

Keep an eye on after-school activities. Hobbies are important, but too many combined with lots of homework can push the bedtime later and overstimulate your child

Keep your routine

Don’t let weekends throw you. While it’s tempting to let the routine drift at the weekend, late nights and lie-ins can confuse your child’s internal body clock, making it more difficult during the week.

Get your child up at the same time every day, and establish a bedtime routine that starts at the same time every night. 

Follow a familiar pattern every night, e.g. bath, book, bed. A warm bath can make it easier for your child to fall asleep. It’s not the rise in body temperature that triggers sleepiness, but the cooling down that follows, which tells the body it's night-time

What happens when children sleep?

Growth and development 

Growth hormone is released during deep sleep stages, primarily during the first half of the night.

This hormone is essential for physical development and is responsible for making sure a child reaches their genetic potential in terms of height and weight.

Deficiencies occur when the pituitary gland doesn't produce enough of the hormone. 

Emotional regulation

Getting the right amount of sleep every night helps children manage their emotional responses to stressors. 

No matter what their age, a lack of sleep can lead to irritability, mood swings, and difficulty regulating their emotions.

Hormone production

Sleep is closely tied to the regulation of various hormones, including those that control hunger and appetite. A well-rested child is less likely to experience disruptions in their hunger signals, which can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight.

Cognitive processing

Sleep is crucial for filing memories and cognitive development. When a child sleeps, their brain processes the information they took in throughout the day.

Over time, good sleep habits and a regulated pattern of rest make children better learners and problem solvers.


If you’ve ever wondered why your child has so much energy, it probably has to do with the amount of good quality sleep they’re getting.

When we sleep, our metabolic rate drops. This means the brain and body can take some time off to recharge overnight. This is essential in children because both are developing at a fast rate during childhood.

Behaviour and mood regulation

Children who get enough sleep tend to exhibit better behaviour. This includes improved impulse control and concentration. 

Adapting as they age

You will find the challenges you face as a parent change as your child gets older. When your child was young, it may have felt like they slept all the time. Now that they’re older, getting them to do anything might feel like a challenge.

Young children

Young children can struggle with sleep due to their developing circadian rhythm or separation anxiety. Their internal body clock is still maturing and they may not yet associate sleep with the end of the day. This makes naptime and establishing a regular sleep schedule difficult. 

Separation anxiety is also common in younger children and toddlers. Fear of being away from a parent can cause anxiety and discomfort when a child is left alone in the dark. If this sounds familiar, nightlights, child ASMR, and story time can all help.


Trying to help a teenager who struggles with their sleep can be just as difficult (if not more so) than when they’re a toddler.

Teenagers face sleep difficulties because of the various hormonal changes that happen during puberty. Academic and social pressure and increased technology usage may also influence their sleep routine.

The truth about technology

Our sleep pattern is largely controlled by our internal body clock or circadian rhythm. This takes cues from the things around us, including the blue light that’s emitted by laptop, tablet, and smartphone screens.

These screens are designed to engage us, leaving us wired and engaged. This is problematic because blue light prevents the brain winding down in preparation for sleep.  

Experts advise us to avoid screens altogether for at least an hour before going to bed. This means limiting time playing video games or studying on the laptop late in the evening.

How keeping active helps with sleep

There is a strong link between physical activity and sleep duration and quality in children.

If you notice your child’s sleep schedule deteriorates at weekends or during the holidays, it could be because they aren’t getting enough physical engagement outside of school.

If you’re struggling for inspiration, pick and choose from the list of activities below depending on your child’s age:

  • Visit the local park
  • Go swimming
  • Rollerblading
  • Build an obstacle course
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Summer sports camps
  • Bike rides
  • Water balloon fights
  • Arts and crafts
  • Exploring
  • Gardening
  • Hide and seek

Frequently asked questions

My baby wakes up three or four times during the night. What can I do?

It's common for babies to wake up multiple times during the night, especially if they are young.

If your baby does wake up, respond to their needs promptly, whether it's a diaper change, a feeding, or a cuddle. Comforting your baby when they're distressed helps build trust.

When you put them down, ensure the room is dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Use a white noise machine if necessary to drown out disturbances.

Always follow safe sleep guidelines. Place your baby on their back on a firm, flat sleep surface that they can’t roll out of.

How do I know when to stop napping?

Most children no longer require a nap by the age of four. The rest usually stop needing a nap by the age of five.

Your child will usually let you know when they no longer need a midday nap. If they’re getting enough good quality sleep at night, most children have the energy to stay up during the day by the time they’re three.

If you’re trying to encourage napping in a younger child, keep putting them down to sleep. If they refuse or find sleep difficult, encourage quiet time instead. Read a story with them or promote some quiet time on their own in a relaxed setting.

I find it impossible to get them away from their video games before bed

Communication is key. Talk with your child and make sure they understand the importance of sleep and how video games can interrupt sleep. Support their interests, but set boundaries that they’re aware of.

Lead by example and don’t set them rules that you don’t follow yourself. Limit your own screen time when you’re around them as encouragement. You might want to consider a reward system, where your child can earn extra privileges if they stick to their routine.

Above all else, be patient and considerate when you implement any changes. It can take time for a child to adjust to a new routine or behaviour.

The holidays mean their routine goes out the window. Any advice?

Sleep suffers when routines are interrupted. This is the same for adults as it is for children. Do you wake up at the same time on a Sunday as you do on a Tuesday?

Make sure your children are stimulated and busy during their holidays. If they have nothing to do, they will lay in. If they’re teenagers, they may be adapting to bodily changes that mean they require more sleep.

Assess their holiday routine and make sure they’ve got enough to keep them busy. If they don’t, chances are they’ll stay in bed longer than usual.

What’s the best way to change their bedtime?

Select a target bedtime that aligns with their age and sleep needs. Make sure they have a consistent pre-sleep routine in place that’s calming and relaxing. No child can be expected to sleep straight after a full on, engaging activity.

Make gradual 10 to 15-minute adjustments every other night until the target bedtime is reached. This gradual approach helps children adapt without resistance. Ensure your child wakes up at the same time every morning to reinforce the new schedule. 

Be patient and offer reassurance, as it may take a week or two for your child to fully adapt to the new bedtime.

My toddler has started calling out for me in the night

This may be due to separation anxiety which is common in young children. This occurs because children naturally do not want to be away from their parent.

When your toddler calls out, make sure they are comfortable. Ensure they have their favourite blanket or stuffed animal and that their room is at a comfortable temperature.

Offer a reassuring presence, a hug, and soothing words. Keep interactions brief and low-key to avoid overstimulation. Put them back down to sleep as soon as possible to avoid reinforcing their cries. 

If your toddler is experiencing night-time fears, address them during the day. Talk about what they think about sleep and comfort them so they feel more secure at night.

Last updated Wednesday 13 March 2024

First published on Wednesday 13 March 2024