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Child Can’t Wind Down at Night? Why Some Kids Struggle to Go to Sleep

By Amanda Morin

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At a Glance

  • Many kids have trouble winding down before bed.

  • Big changes at home and in the world can lead to kids having trouble getting to sleep.

  • Kids who are hyperactive can struggle to wind down at night.

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Is your child’s bedtime routine a struggle? Does your child avoid going to bed or have trouble falling asleep? Do you find yourself saying “You need to stop getting out of bed” over and over? 

If your child has trouble winding down at night, you may wonder why it’s so hard for some kids to relax and drift off. Or you just may feel exhausted and irritated. Why is bedtime such a big challenge?

It’s a tough situation—for both you and your child. And it can be even more frustrating when you know your child is trying hard to wind down and get some sleep. 

So, what’s happening? Why is your child struggling so much to do something that seems like it should come naturally?

Anxiety and Trouble Winding Down

Lots of kids struggle to wind down at night from time to time. And since the COVID-19 pandemic started, more kids are having trouble getting to sleep or sleeping well. Heightened awareness of racial injustice can also add to kids’ anxiety and stress.

With changes in routine and school schedules, some kids’ sleep has been thrown off. If they’re sleeping later in the morning or napping during the day, it can make it harder for them to wind down at night.

For many kids, the added stress and anxiety is making it harder for them to get settled, shut their brains off for the night, and fall asleep. And when kids don’t sleep well, they’re more likely to feel anxious, which makes it harder to sleep. 

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When kids are anxious, you may notice that they:

  • Lie awake alone 

  • Keep popping out of bed to announce “I’m still awake” 

  • Worry during the day, too, and about life in general

Over time, kids who struggle with sleep might start to worry well before bedtime that they’re not going to fall asleep. That worry can make them restless, which makes it even harder to wind down.

What’s Behind Trouble Winding Down? 

Trouble winding down can be related to worry and anxiety. But there are other reasons kids can struggle to fall asleep.

Some kids get so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they have trouble switching gears and sticking to their bedtime routine. Others don’t want to settle down because they don’t want to miss out on something fun you or their older siblings will do after their bedtime. 

Here are other reasons kids may have trouble winding down:

  • Not having the music, stuffed animal, or person they “need” to fall asleep (you may hear this called “sleep association”)

  • Being afraid of the dark, of having nightmares, or of other nighttime-related things

  • Going through big changes at home, like a new baby or the death of a family member 

  • Getting stuck on thoughts and problems

  • Having high levels of energy, or hyperactivity

Hyperactivity is one of the signs of ADHD. Kids with ADHD are often easily distracted, too, which can make it hard to settle down at night. It can take them a while to “shut off their brain” and get to sleep.

Keep in mind, though, that some kids are just night owls. Their bedtime comes before their brains are ready to wind down. They may struggle with what’s called “delayed sleep.” 

Kids with delayed sleep have trouble falling asleep in a reasonable amount of time. They’re often still awake for up to an hour after going to bed. Delayed sleep can also make it harder for kids to wake up in the morning. They often feel groggy when they wake up.

What to Do

Noticing your child’s trouble getting to sleep is a good first step. From there, talk with your child about what you’re seeing. You can say, “I noticed that settling down at night seems tough for you. Do you feel that, too?” Then ask your child what’s hard about going to sleep.

Take notes on what your child says and other things you notice. When does your child have trouble getting to sleep? Does your child seem anxious? Does your child seem hyperactive or easily distracted?

Sometimes, signs of ADHD get confused with sleep disorders. And since lack of sleep can make it hard for kids to concentrate the next day, it can create a chicken-and-egg scenario. That’s why it’s important to talk with your health care provider about what you’re seeing.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to help your child get more sleep. If you don’t have a set routine to wind down for the night, try to create a bedtime routine. You can also use a nighttime routine checklist.

Work toward a goal of turning off electronics an hour before bedtime. This can help kids’ brains wind down more easily. Start by shutting off electronics 15 minutes before bed. Then try 30 minutes, working your way up to an hour.

These strategies may help your child wind down a little more easily. If it continues to be a problem, though, keep talking with your child, and check in with your child’s health care provider. And learn more about why some kids struggle with hyperactivity.

Key Takeaways

  • Anxiety and hyperactivity can make it hard for kids to wind down and go to sleep.

  • Creating a bedtime routine—or making adjustments to it—can help your child fall asleep.

  • Talk with your child’s health care provider if you’re concerned about your child’s trouble going to sleep.

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