Expert Advice

What to do when your child has sleep anxiety

Research says 86% of Australian children are suffering from bedtime anxiety. Here's how parents can help.

By Fiona Wright
According to new research from Signify, a whopping 86% of Australian children are suffering from bedtime anxiety and disturbed sleeping patterns.
The knock-on effect of these sleep issues can impact your child's productivity, mood and sense of happiness.
We all know how important sleep is and how it's difficult to function during the day when you haven't had enough.
So how do you know if your child has sleep anxiety and what strategies can you put in place to help them sleep soundly?
Clinical Psychologist and Behaviour Expert, Jaimie Block, has the following advice for parents.
The signs your child has bedtime anxiety
How do you know if your child has anxiety around sleep? Jaimie says to take notice of children who become stressed at bedtime and struggle to fall asleep on a regular basis, as well as if they are constantly waking throughout the night.
"Another good tip is to ask your child's school teacher if they are noticing whether your child is sleepier and distracted during the day."
"Other signs may be, finding it hard to rise in the morning, having a short fuse and being unusually unmotivated or restless," says Jaimie.
"For younger children, symptoms may look like: tantrums, droopy eyelids, constant yawning, whining, difficulty rising in the morning and being overly clingy. It is important to know these signs may also be indicators of other health or emotional difficulties."
Help your child to communicate with you
Your child needs to know they can talk to you about any concerns. "A great way to help your child open up about any specific worries is what I like to call "over communicating", says Jaimie.
"For older kids you may want to say something like 'I feel like something is happening and I have noticed bedtime is hard for you. Maybe you don't want to tell me what's wrong, but remember we are a team and I am always here for you'."
"For younger children, you can use a book to communicate and discuss different worries that are normal for children to have, especially at night."
A well-rested child is a happy child! Sleep issues can impact their productivity, mood and sense of happiness. (Getty Images)
Establish a bedtime routine
For parents with children suffering from sleeping issues, it is very important to establish a regular sleep routine. As Jaimie explains, it will allow your child to develop the optimum circadian rhythm which is the body's natural sleep, wake and rest cycle.
"Children can get anxious when falling asleep becomes difficult, which further impacts sleep. Having a regular routine allows your child the comfort and ease of knowing and learning when it's time to start getting the body and mind into relaxation sleep mode, which reduces bedtime anxiety," says Jaimie.
Encourage your child to relax
It's important for your child to be able to wind down in their bedroom.
"Meditation and calming music can be very helpful for some. Remember different children find different things relaxing, so it is important you find these things and trial them together with your child," advises Jaimie.
"The use of security items, such as a snuggly toy, can be part of your child's sleep routine. This may be a special teddy, blanket or even pillow. Security items help children feel soothed, connected and calm. It will also signal to your child it's time for bed."
Meditation can help calm your child's mind. (Getty Images)
Make the bedroom a tech-free zone
Jaimie says the bedroom should only be associated with sleep. And that means no screen time.
"A lot of families I meet use their bedroom for schoolwork. Having a tech, entertainment and work-free zone allows the room becomes a place of rest and relaxation.
Furthermore, no screens should be used 60-90 minutes prior to bedtime."
Exercise and spend time outdoors
Encourage your child to head outside and move their body. "The sun is a natural cue for our brain and body chemicals and spending time outdoors allows our body a natural chemical release, which promotes good sleep," says Jaimie.
"The circadian rhythm is individual and different in everyone, but because we are a species that is active in the day and sleep at night our circadian rhythm is set and triggered by sunrise and sunset. When you look at the sun, for your body, it's like looking at a clock and checking the time — this process is called entrainment, where your body clock synchronises with the local time."
Keep calm and be patient
When your child refuses bedtime it can be frustrating but it's important to make sure you remain neutral and calm.
"Use simple words and non-verbal cues to direct your child back to bed or back to engaging in the calming activities. When we get frustrated and raise our voice or have anxious and annoyed energy our children can pick up on these cues."
When to seek professional help
If you are worried about your child's bedtime routine, it is best to consult your GP or another health professional, like a Psychologist.
Other signs it may be time to consult a health professional are:
• When there is an observable and persistent change in your child's mood or personality
• When your child is very rigid in their thinking and not open to experimentation
• When they become overly withdrawn or avoidant
• When they are more reactive/sensitive than normal
• Being mean and nasty to others and this is out of character