There are many emotional reasons why children struggle to fall asleep. They might feel excited, worried, bored, or distracted, which can make it difficult to wind down. Try these tips to help a child to fall asleep:
Meet Comfort Needs
What does the child need to feel safe, comfortable, and relaxed at night? You can identify these needs by asking the child, or you can experiment by providing these needs and observing any changes in the child’s ability to get to sleep. Try to avoid items that you know will prevent the child from getting to sleep, such as electronic devices or any other items that the child wants to engage with. Here are suggestions of common comfort needs:
- A warm, cool, or weighted blanket
- A stuffed animal or toy
- Cozy pajamas
- Either a night-light or complete darkness
- A book or a story
- Music or background noise
- A kiss or a hug
- A snack or glass of water (avoid caffeine)
Note: Children who’ve experience trauma and/or struggle with anxiety will have different needs than other children, as nighttime can be a frightening time. These children may not be simply avoiding bedtime but rather may be afraid of bedtime. Seek the support of a therapist to help you identify these needs.
Create a Bedtime Structure
A repetitive structure can help children wind down at night, as it instills habits and associations. Allow the child to be a part of creating this structure. You may also want to write it down for yourself and the child so that you can continue to follow it. Consider allowing time for the child to wind down by moving them away from activities that they enjoy, since these may keep them awake. Here’s an example of a bedtime structure: 1) All electronics are turned off, 2) Take a shower/bath and put on pajamas, 3) Go to the bathroom (even if you don’t have to go), 4) Put a glass of water on the nightstand, 5) Read 2 stories in bed, 6) Lights Out.
Try Imagery Exercises
If the child is lying awake due to worries or anxiety, it might help to engage in imagery exercises. Here are a few to try:
Turn Off Your Brain: Imagine that your brain has an off button. When you press this button, your brain slowly powers off, like a computer. The button closes all of your thoughts and shuts your brain off for the night until you wake up in the morning. Ask the child to imagine that you or they can push their brain’s off button and that they can feel their brain slowing turning off.
Worry Box: Imagine that you can put all of your worries into a box. Close your eyes and see all of your worries coming out of your head and going into a box. When your worries are in the box, close it so they can’t get out, and you can collect your worries from the box in the morning.
Heavy Body: When you lie down in bed, imagine that your body starts to feel heavy. The heaviness starts in your head and travels all the way to your toes. Imagine that your heavy body sinks into your bed.
Engage in a Boring Activity
Allow the child to do an activity in bed that they find boring. This activity can help the child to focus on one thing, and it can help their brain to slow down. You may need to encourage the child to try multiple activities before they find the one that helps them to fall asleep. Be aware that children will choose activities that they find interesting, but these activites will likley keep them awake. Here are examples of common boring actvites:
- Read a boring book
- Complete math problems
- Listen to a boring audio book or podcast
- Knitting/Sewing (create safety measures)