Good nights: how to handle older children's sleep problems

What causes sleep problems for older children?

The majority of babies start showing signs of sleeping through the night any time from around six months onwards – but that doesn’t mean they will always sleep through, or that sleeplessness is a thing of the past.

There are lots of common issues that can affect the sleep of toddlers and older children, but as before, there are many strategies you can try to get them back into good sleeping habits.

Bedtime battles

When you’re faced with an active toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed (especially one who’s big enough to run away from you), bedtimes can sometimes become a battleground with your little one pushing the boundaries later and later every night.

However lively they are, even big, grown-up four year olds usually need around 12 hours sleep every night. Bedtime should be a cuddly, relaxing time that both parent and child can enjoy. So what can you do to calm things down?

Routine, routine, routine

Just like with younger babies, consistency and routine are crucial to happy bedtimes. Your routine might be as simple as ‘milk, cuddle, story’, but knowing that the wind-down to bedtime will be the same every night will really help your little one get used to settling for the night.

If you’re currently stuck with a bedtime that’s drifted later than you’d like, make a point of sticking to a wind-down routine, starting about 20 minutes before they normally fall asleep – then gradually move the beginning of that routine a bit earlier every night until you hit the bedtime you want. The NHS website has more advice on this approach.

You can also try the calming sounds from CBeebies Radio. There are eight sounds to choose from which allows you to experiment and find which one works best:

Waves, birdsong, rain, car journey, spaceship, white noise, pink noise and brown noise.

Claire Benton, Head of Audiology, Nottingham, says:

“Many children find these sounds relaxing and listening to them can help a child feel calm enough to fall asleep".

Simple routines, such as a nightly bedtime story can help settle your little one for the night.

Up and down

If your little one finds it hard to settle at bedtime, or is constantly getting out of bed, it’s useful to first of all think about any practical things that might be stopping them from dropping off.

Make sure they’ve got everything they need to snuggle down – have a drink within reach, a nightlight if you use one, and of course any special toy or comforter that helps them settle. Ensure that their bedroom is calm and quiet, and that they’re not too hot or too cold in bed.

If you’re concerned that your child’s day-to-day worries might be what’s keeping them awake, try setting aside some time before bed to talk through the day together. This can be particularly useful for older children who are negotiating things like starting school and getting in the habit of talking about feelings can help little ones understand their own emotions as well as those of other people.

If you think that getting up is becoming a habit without any specific cause, it’s a good idea to decide how you prefer to handle this in your family and stick to one consistent approach.

For example, some parents choose to calmly and quietly take the child back to bed each time, with minimal conversation, while others find a cuddle with mum or dad will help their little one settle down.

Milestones and multitasking

If your child’s sleep habits change suddenly, or a toddler who’s always been a good napper is suddenly all about being awake, it’s worth thinking about what else is currently going on in their lives – for example, are they working hard to master a new physical skill?

When children are focusing all their energy on achieving a big developmental milestone like walking, talking or potty training , it’s perfectly normal to see some of their other skills (like bedtime or sleeping) slide back a bit. Extra cuddles and some early nights can be a good idea when little ones are getting to grips with a new stage.

Night terrors and sleepwalking

Both night terrors and sleepwalking are things that can happen to children when deep sleep gets interrupted suddenly and the body becomes active, albeit in an automatic, non-thinking, non-receptive way. Night terrors are different to nightmares, and can be really frightening to witness as a parent. A child in the grip of night terrors may appear not to recognise you, and might be hard to comfort as they scream and thrash about. If you’re faced with this, the best way to handle it is to stay calm and try not to intervene.

Once the episode has ended, gently wake your child up, comfort them if they’re distressed, and make sure that they’ve woken up fully before settling them down to sleep again. Luckily, children are unlikely to remember episodes of night terrors the following day – and it is something that little ones will grow out of.

Sleepwalking is another common problem that’s rooted in deep sleep being interrupted. It’s slightly more common in older children (aged over 5). If you come across your child sleepwalking, don’t try to wake them up. Talk to them calmly and quietly and see if they will follow your instructions to go back to bed. Stay close to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, and gently guide them back to bed.

Bedwetting

The majority of children aren’t reliably dry at night until they’re somewhere between 3.5 and 4 years old. But accidents happen from time to time, even once your little one is toilet trained at night – especially if they’re poorly, overtired, or having nightmares. The key here is to stay calm and relaxed about bedwetting, and reassure your child that it’s not a problem. Make good toilet habits part of their bedtime routine, and don’t make a big deal of it when they have an accident.

For more tips and advice on night-time toilet training, check out our expert’s guide to dry nights.

If you’re concerned about your little one’s sleep habits, or need more advice, the NHS website or a chat with your GP or health visitor are a great place to start.

More from CBeebies Grown-ups:

Resources for parents of pre-school children
Child development 3-4 year olds
Baby sleep problems 

All Bedtime Stories
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