Helping Children Fall Asleep: Sleep Onset Problems in Children

Last updated: May 20, 2019


The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

Sleep disorders can affect anyone. This includes children. Research by the National Sleep Foundation found that around 65 percent of children ages 10 years old and below suffer from a sleep disorder. According to a study at the Northwestern University Medical Center, lack of sleep is one of the leading causes of behavioral problems in children.

One of the most common sleep disorders among children is Sleep-Onset Insomnia. This is a type of insomnia characterized by the inability to fall asleep early in the night. It is something that we commonly see in children. They go to bed and instead of sleeping they play or talk to their siblings. Most of the time this behavior gets treated as normal behavior. However, this is a type of insomnia that needs treatment.

How can we help children deal with Sleep-onset Insomnia?

Most of the time sleep-onset insomnia in children is treatable without the need for the use of medications. There are techniques that a parent or caregiver can employ to help a child fall asleep on the assigned bedtime. Here are some things that can help a child with sleep-onset insomnia.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a type of reward system that a parent can use to get a child to sleep on time. For example, a parent can give 1 or more tokens to a child that he can use if he doesn’t want to sleep yet. The parent can take the token in as a bedtime pass to allow the child to stay awake. If the child goes to sleep without using the token the child can exchange the token for a reward. The reward can be something small like a favor. The favor doesn’t have to be monetary in nature. It can as simple as an additional half hour of playtime. However, this technique may not work with older children.

Decreased parental attention

The presence of a parent or a caregiver can delay the sleep onset on a child. A child might not go to sleep and instead try to converse or play with the parent. A parent should decrease his or her presence when the child is already on the bed. Parents need to do this gradually. For example, during the first night the parent can sit on a chair next to the bed until the child falls asleep. The following night the chair gets moved next to the door. This will help train a child sleep without someone guarding. A parent can also try to excuse himself/herself with an errand so he/she can leave the child alone. The parent can increase this time away from the child with each passing night.  

Avoid stimulating activities

A child should not engage in stimulating activities close to bedtime. An example is watching TV. A child can get animated after watching an engaging movie or TV show. This can lead to the child talking about what he just watched and delay the onset of sleep. Limit stimulating activities to at least 1 hour before bedtime.

Bedtime fading

Bedtime fading is a technique that involves moving bedtime to an earlier time. Let’s say that the designated bedtime is 8:30 PM. If the child doesn’t want to sleep during bedtime, allow the child to stay up. The following night move the bedtime to half an hour earlier than the time the child wants to go to bed. If the child wants to go to bed at 10 PM have the child go to bed at 9:30 PM. Continue moving the bedtime to an earlier time until it reaches the original bedtime.

Sleep hygiene

Practicing good sleeping habits can help a child avoid sleep-onset insomnia. An example of a good sleeping habit is setting a consistent sleep schedule. Follow the sleep schedule even during weekends. This will help the child establish a regular Circadian Rhythm or Sleep-wake Cycle.

Another good sleeping habit is limiting the use of the bed for sleeping. The child should not be allowed to play in the bed. This way the child knows that being in bed means that it is time to sleep and not to play.

Avoid consuming stimulating foods and drinks at least 2 hours before bedtime. An example is drinking soft drinks. These contain caffeine that can keep the child awake past bedtime.

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.

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