Your Child Can’t Sleep?

Put bedtime bugaboos―and your kids―to rest with these expert solutions.

Photo by Liz Banfield

Problem: Your child gets up repeatedly after you've put him to bed, calling, “Mom, I need a glass of water.”

Why it happens: Kids make bedtime curtain calls for many reasons. Preschoolers may be asserting their independence: “You can't make me stay in bed!” Or they stall because they're afraid of the dark. The most common reason, though, is that you've slipped from a consistent routine you had when they were babies.

How to rest easy: Before-bed routines are important for children of all ages, says Lynn D'Andrea, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, in Wauwatosa. “Kids start to think, I've done my routine―now it's bedtime,“ she says.

The evening ritual could be as simple as reading your child a story and wishing him a good night. Another tool is a bedtime pass, a card your child can turn in for one nighttime request. Preschoolers also benefit from rewards (like extra playground time) for staying put.

Problem: Your child is scared―of the boogeyman or even a house fire.

Why it happens: As kids wind down, it's normal for anxieties to surface. Your preschooler is apt to worry about what lurks in the shadows, while an older child may have relatively realistic fears―of robbers, for instance.

How to rest easy: A night-light to chase away gloom and a few squirts of anti-monster spray (tap water in a specially marked bottle) are often enough to settle down a young one. “These are imaginary fears, so imaginary solutions work well,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., an associate director of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Sleep Center and a coauthor of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep. Don't worry about reinforcing anxieties by acknowledging them.

If an older child is a worrier, ban scary movies and books at night. If he frets about intruders or natural disasters, chat with him about these issues well before bedtime. “For example, ask, 'What would you do if we had a fire?'” says D'Andrea. “Having an escape plan for an emergency could also help him relax.”