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Dos and Don'ts for "I Can't Sleep!" Nights

Published on: December 30, 2013

13-02-11-child-cant-sleepEver found yourself in this scenario? After a long, full day of family life, you’re dead tired and just peeling back the covers to collapse into blissful sleep when your blinking, bed-headed child comes padding into your room. “Mommy? Daddy? I can’t sleep.”

We all have nights when we just can’t doze off, and it happens to kids too. Here’s how to handle an “I can’t sleep” night, and help your child get the zzzzs she needs.

DO: Cool her down

Here’s a situation where cooler heads prevail, because research shows that cooling the brain is an effective treatment for insomnia. Sleeping in a too-warm environment can keep the sandman away, because it interrupts the natural cooling process that initiates sleep. The quickest remedy is often the most effective: have your child swap hot fleece pajamas or sweaty socks for cooler cotton PJs. Crack your child’s window and remove heavy bedding from her bed.

DON’T: Flip on the floodlights

Don’t turn on your regular house lights in the middle of the night — the flood of midnight light will inhibit your child’s natural production of melatonin, which will make it harder for him to get back to sleep. Use nightlights or dim lights whenever possible.

DO: Try a bath

In this situation, a warm bath is a triple win (of course, young children must be supervised in the bath). First, it’s a soothing way for your child to pass the time until she feels sleepy enough for bed. Second, it keeps her occupied without the use of television screens, which can actually stimulate her brain and keep her up. Finally, when your child gets out of the bath, her body temperature will drop, which kick-starts the cooling process that helps to beckon sleep.

DO: Offer a snack

A well-chosen snack can actually help get your child to sleep, because nighttime nosh containing complex carbohydrates and protein can help the brain produce the serotonin and melatonin that help to send your child to sleepyland. Cereal and milk or soymilk, whole-grain crackers with cheese, or apples and nuts are excellent choices.

DON’T: Turn to the tube

When you’re beat (and what parent isn’t by day’s end?) the television seems like the easiest solution to the can’t-sleep dilemma. But don’t immediately reach for the remote — the stimulating lights, colors, and action can actually make it harder for your child to drift off. If you absolutely must, use television only as a last resort after you’ve already tried the steps above, and choose the mildest content your child will tolerate. Think Winnie the Pooh, not WWE.

DO: Ask what’s up

When your child just can’t get to sleep, a bedroom chat may be in order. Is your child nervous about an upcoming test or recital? Did he inadvertently overhear something that’s bothering him? Did something happen at school that he hasn’t had a chance to tell you? Worries and fears can begin to blossom around age six, and they can keep your child wide awake long after lights-out. A 15-minute conversation about your child’s worries can save hours of everyone’s sleep — and you just might learn something new about your kid, too.

Quick tip: If your child is having “one of those nights,” you can try a couple of quick solutions to help her get back to sleep quickly. Ask your child to try her hardest to imitate a sleeping person. Tell her you’ll come back and check on her in a few minutes — after a short stint of fake-sleeping, she’ll probably actually fall asleep. One mom I know reassures her son by telling him that if he’s still having trouble sleeping at midnight, he can get up with her. Of course, he’s always snoozing soundly by then.

147About the author: Malia Jacobson is a nationally published sleep expert, health journalist, and mom. Her articles about sleep, health, and parenting appear regularly in over 80 national and regional magazines and on television, she is the author of two e-books on sleep, and she posts sleep tips regularly on her blog, The Well-Rested Family, where this post originally appeared.

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