Why kids can’t sleep
What does anxiety have to do with sleep? Schonfeld says that high levels of stress raise levels of the hormone cortisol. That surge can knock out of kilter the typical ebb and flow of hormones and chemicals that help dictate your sleep-wake cycle. Babies, toddlers, and some school-aged children may not know whether or not they’re anxious, but they may respond to general unease by wanting to have their parents nearby. “This intensified craving for their parents’ comfort carries over into the sleep window,” says Lisa Medalie, PsyD, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at UChicago Medicine who developed DrLullaby, an app to help kids sleep. Anxious older kids might ruminate over what’s worrying them, which also makes it hard to fall asleep.
Beyond stress, disruptions in our usual routines can steal away sleep, too. As mundane as it sounds, a routine provides a framework for our lives. When crucial pieces of our schedules disappear or shift, the larger whole is prone to falling apart. Later start times for school or day care (or no school at all), the cancellation of camps, the infiltration of screen time into playdate time (or, let’s be real, any time), the disappearance of rules because parents are too exhausted to enforce them—these things affect the usual rhythms of the day and can ultimately wreak havoc at night.
In addition to helping kids feel safe and comfortable, “[C]onsistent bedtimes and wake times are essential components for maintaining optimal sleep,” says Medalie, who in her practice has seen a significant uptick in insomnia complaints from kids and adults. And, of course, good sleep (at least 10 hours for kids ages 3 to 5, and at least nine hours for kids ages 6 to 12) makes for a happier, healthier child (PDF).
How to help kids fall asleep
Behavioral interventions for sleep remain by far the safest treatments over the long term for most children, says Medalie (though, of course, if anxiety and insomnia persist, talk to your pediatrician or contact a pediatric sleep specialist). For the best chance of success, model the desired behavior. For example, if you want kids to unglue themselves from the phone at night, unglue yourself too. And instead of dictating rules, offer options. Giving children some say in the matter goes a long way toward motivating them to follow through.