It sounds too simple to be true, but in order for sleep to take over, the child actually needs to be tired. Read on.
Putting to bed too early.
Some kids just have their natural sleep time. When my first was a baby, if I tried to get her to bed before 8pm, it never, ever worked. She’s six years old and I still don’t bother trying before 8pm, even when she’s exhausted. Anything after 10pm (which is pretty late for a child) and you have to be careful because the child can actually become more wide awake. The same rule applies for adults, try to go to bed before 10 and it’s easier to fall asleep.
Fear that you’re going to leave the room.
A child may be too frightened to fall asleep or may not feel safe enough to drift off. It can be quite scary and unnatural from a biological perspective for a child to know that they will be left alone. A child may also feel anxious if they know you’re going to go away and tell the child to not come and find you. Kids (and adults) are hardwired to be in close proximity to others. (Imagine if our cave ancestors had put their children to sleep on the other side of a rock, not too good for the survival rate of the human species).
Of course, many of us also feel that we need that alone time after the kids go to sleep. But, it’s important to understand that it’s very normal for children to become frightened at the thought of you leaving them alone in a room. Many families around the world have their children stay awake until everyone is ready to fall asleep. I’ve adopted the routine of all going to bed at the same time and it’s been great. Most nights, we all go to bed at the same time and in the same big family bed around 9pm. If I do have to get up and do something after the kids fall asleep, they know that I’ll be in there eventually. Also, since we have a big family bedroom, there’s never any chasing them back to their room. If room sharing isn’t for you, just consider that your child may need more comfort in knowing that you will be available.
Haven’t had enough exercise.
Kids need a LOT of exercise! How much? It depends on the age and the type of kid. My 3 year old needs at least an hour of running around per day and she is my little delicate one. My 6 year old is strong and sturdy, and she can easily get 2 hours of vigorous exercise a day. Even babies and toddlers can get plenty of exercise from crawling, climbing and toddling around. On days when they’ve had enough exercise, my kids always sleep more soundly, and their behaviour is also much better.
Eaten something that is preventing them from falling asleep.
Certain foods cause irritation to certain people’s bodies, and it’s not the types of foods you necessarily think of. So watch carefully which foods might be bothering your child. Of course, sugar can do it. But, watch out for foods with preservatives and food colouring. For example, when my little one eats raw cacao, she literally twitches and talks in her sleep it affects her so much! Soft drinks, caffeinated teas (even green tea), sour foods, like apples and yogurt, spicy and salty foods, foods with too much garlic, and certain types of meat can cause aggravation in the mind and body that makes it hard for a kid to fall to sleep. Also, not having enough to eat, or having just eaten cold, raw food does not help sleep. Children really need warm, easy to digest foods in their diet so that they can sleep better.
Too much screen time.
Screen time is a hot debate these days. Most research states that children under the age of 2 should have no screen time at all. I’ve even heard that children should not watch full length movies until the age of 7. Whatever the amount of screen time equals up to for your child, be observant of how screens affect your child. Be wary of allowing very young children to watch too much, especially before bed. Although their bodies are ‘still‘ and look relaxed while they’re watching the screen, afterwards, their minds might become very active and irritated.
You are waiting anxiously for them to fall asleep.
Kids can sense it. If I drift off to sleep with them, they always fall asleep faster. However, if I’m sitting there, with my mind racing of all the things I need to do once they fall asleep, it can take them forever to fall asleep! As soon as I ‘give up‘ on my list of things to do and relax, they tend to fall asleep more easily.
Overstimulated, overtired, control patterns and needs an emotional release.
This is probably the most common, most important, hard to navigate and often most overlooked reason of all. You know the kid is tired… so why aren’t they falling asleep?!?! Or, sometimes they do fall asleep, only to wake up half an hour later screaming their brains out. It drives you bonkers.
A child accumulates stress throughout the day. Even in the most peaceful environments, children still experience upsets and overstimulation. Of course we want to try and minimise these stresses, but we can’t stop every negative event in a child’s life. When a child cries or whines over something, our natural response is to somehow stop the noise. However, crying is a natural built in mechanism that children use to relieve stress from their systems. Restlessness when trying to fall asleep is a sure sign that a child needs an emotional release. So is excessive whining and frequently changing of their mind. Getting the cry to come out can be tricky though. Sometimes it’s a loving limit the needs to be set, sometimes it’s a control pattern than needs to be addressed (using a dummy or pacifier or the boob) sometimes it’s a gentle holding down hug to stop them from running around, that will make them start to cry. After the cry, they will almost always fall asleep more easily and more peacefully.
I wrote an entire blog post on this one, “Too Tired to Sleep”.
Or here’s an example:
Just last night, my 3 1/2 year old went to bed, she had an exhausting day, very overstimulated. After only an hour or rest, she woke up screaming! I was doing some work on the computer, so I sent my husband in and man, did she scream even more! There was nothing wrong with sending my husband in, it’s just that when I sent him, her emotional release came out in full force. Remember, a child will usually only cry in such way with somebody that they feel comfortable with. She screamed and screamed for about 10 minutes while my husband stayed near, then fell back to sleep. The following day, when she went down for her usual day sleep, she was out in a minute. The negative emotions had been released and she was able to fall asleep more easily.
For more information on how crying can help release negative emotions, and especially how to deal with control patters (dummy/pacifier, all night boobing, white noise, rocking, clutching blanket), I highly recommend reading ‘Tears and Tantrums‘ by Aletha Solter.
So, how can you get them to sleep faster and more peaceful
Everyone has a recommendation here. From bedtime routines, to essential oils, to cry-it-out (cry-it-out, Ferberizing, etc. is not a recommended option for helping children to sleep faster and more peacefully). Take the points I mentioned into consideration and you’ll surely see an improvement!
Disclaimer: I am an Aware Parent instructor, not a doctor. There may be a medical reason why your child is not able to fall asleep easily. Watch for signs that your child is not well and bring him or her to the doctor if you suspect the child needs a diagnosis.