A few weeks into the stay-at-home orders last spring, our seven-year-old son began wandering into our room in the middle of the night. “I need help going back to sleep,” he would say, or “I had a nightmare,” which he would then describe in detail while I tried to get him tucked back into his bed. My husband and I began to feel like we were back to the early days of parenting, when the fog of exhaustion hung around our heads all day. What was going on?
It didn’t take a child psychologist to sort out that the COVID-19 pandemic—and resulting drastic shift in our daily lives it prompted—felt so disruptive and bizarre to our son that he began to sleep poorly. Shuttered schools meant he (and his sister) were looking at screens far more than they ever had before—and research suggests that the blue light from computers or tablets can disrupt a person’s natural circadian rhythm and make it harder to fall or stay asleep. Our little extrovert also missed his friends, which prompted sadness. And no matter how much we emphasized that his dad and I were keeping him safe—and the virus seemed even then to have a minimal impact on children—he felt anxious. “It just feels so random that a virus could take over the whole world,” he explained to me in the wee hours one morning. Touché, kid, I thought.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. “Sleep is often the first place you’ll see the impact of stressors showing up,” says Melissa Buchholz, Psy.D., a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Sometimes the impetus is a pandemic (obviously), but more often, sleep disruptions can be related to pretty common changes in a child’s life—a new baby, starting preschool, a transition to a new grade or new school, moving—or developmental milestones. “Sleep disturbances can be a sign of developmental progression, not regression,” says Dr. Jessica Litwin, a board-certified pediatric neurologist and sleep specialist at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. “A child experiences attachment to her mom and wants to be with her. That’s positive development. A child’s imagination fires up and she imagines there’s something happening outside her room, and she’s curious. That’s positive development.”
Still, she says, “just because [many sleep disruptions] are typical doesn’t mean you have to live with them.” And in fact, maybe you shouldn’t: “Sleep is the building block for all the tasks of childhood—learning, relationships, transitions, development,” says Buchholz. “It’s such an important part of growth and development.”
To help us all catch those sometimes-elusive z’s, we asked the experts what parents should know about responding to common nighttime disruptions so we can help our children—and indeed, our families—sleep tight.
Wake-ups in the first year of life:
The vast majority of babies do not sleep for more than five or six consecutive hours before six months of age. “We might not even want them to sleep very long because their bodies need to eat in the night,” Buchholz says, adding that when babies learn to put themselves back to sleep in the first year of life (key to parents getting a full night’s rest) depends in part on their personalities: Some infants are more easygoing than others. “Parents should work with their child and support them in learning ways to self-soothe and self-regulate,” she says.
Parents should also try to put their baby to bed when the child is sleepy but still awake. A predictable (and short) bedtime routine and a dim or dark room can also help ease a baby into slumber, says Jamie Bergren, a postpartum doula and certified pediatric sleep consultant at Rockabye Rockies. (She notes that the Children’s Hospital Colorado ParentSmart Healthline can be an excellent source of information on newborn sleep and feeding for new parents.)
Fear of the dark:
“This is especially common as children start to understand that there are scary things [in the world], or as children’s imaginations are coming on board”—which generally happens between ages four and six, Buchholz says. Offer a nightlight or a stuffed animal with a small internal light (nothing too bright), which might be enough to calm fears. If that doesn’t work, as frustrating as it can be to respond to complaints of six-headed monsters under the bed, don’t punish or belittle children for their fears. Instead, reassure your kiddos that they are safe in their rooms and their beds.
One trick from Rockabye Rockies, for young children: Ask your child what they are anxious about. “Then, turn the conversation away from anxieties and toward something more soothing. Talk about vacations, playing with friends, and happy family gatherings. Focus on repeating affirmations like, ‘I’m safe, I’m cozy, I can sleep really well in my bed,’” says Gaby Wentworth, the consultancy’s founder. This way, you’re acknowledging your child’s fears or anxieties but also helping him move past them.
It’s normal for kids to be potty-trained in the daytime before they’re able to stay dry all night, Litwin says, so don’t be discouraged if your three- or four-year-old still needs a Pull-Up for bed. As many as five percent of boys up to age eight might still fail to wake up when they need to use the bathroom in the night. If your elementary-school kiddo is having a hard time staying dry at night, consult your pediatrician about treatment options. Don’t shame a child for wetting the bed. “You just say, ‘It was an accident, and here’s how we clean up accidents,’” Buchholz says.
Bed wetting might also indicate other issues, so it’s a good idea to check with your pediatrician if your elementary-aged child is struggling to stay dry. And if your kiddo has been continent at nighttime for a long time and suddenly begins wetting the bed again, that’s a good reason to check with the doctor, too.
Short and sweet: “If a child snores, the child should be evaluated,” says Litwin. “Snoring is not normal.” Call your pediatrician for advice.
As recently as summer 2020, sleep docs added “Restless Sleep Disorder” to the list of possible diagnoses for children ages six to 18 who have periods of big, thrashing movements during sleep, not the small movements typical for most of the population. The result is poor-quality shut-eye, but doctors can figure out what’s going on by conducting a sleep study. Similarly, children can have Restless Leg Syndrome that prevents them from falling asleep or staying asleep. “Often, kids say something like, ‘There’s creepy-crawlies in my legs,’” Litwin says, adding that sometimes limb problems in sleep can be related to low iron levels. A call to the doctor and a clinical diagnosis can help get you answers.
“Sleep is such an important topic because it connects closely with mental and physical health”—yours and your children’s, Buchholz says. Her best tips? Model good sleep behaviors by prioritizing your own z’s and talk to your pediatrician about any concerns.
Whether a one-eyed boogie man is invading your child’s imagination at night or a pandemic turns his world upside down, take it from this once-again well-rested mom: Sleep disturbances can be solved.
Put Those Screens To Bed, Too!
The experts agree: Kids sleep better when they don’t have screens in their rooms or close to bedtime. The blue light from technology screens can suppress melatonin, making it tougher to fall asleep. Tuck those tablets and laptops away (and not in bedrooms!) at least an hour before bed to give growing bodies a chance to self-regulate and prepare for good rest.
How Much Sleep?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following amounts of sleep for children, based on their ages:
Infants under 1 year: 12–16 hours (including naps)
Children 1 to 2 years old: 11–14 hours (including naps)
Children 3 to 5 years old: 10–13 hours (including naps)
Children 6 to 12 years old: 9–12 hours
Teenagers 13 to 18 years old: 8–10 hours
Can Melatonin Really Help Kids Sleep?
Walk into any grocery store or pharmacy, and you’ll find shelf after shelf of natural supplements containing melatonin—from gummies to powders—that promise to aid in better sleep. Experts say melatonin can be helpful, but is not a good long-term solution, and should not be considered as a complete fix for sleep issues.
“Melatonin is a sleep ‘aid’ and one to three milligrams given one and a half to two hours before bedtime may be a short-term approach to help some kids get rest, at the same time you are trying to establish good bedtime routines (bath, pajamas, reading, quiet time, no screens one hour before bed),” says Dr. Maya Bunik, pediatrician and medical director of the Child Health Clinic at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Bunik adds that melatonin may help older children and teens reset sleep schedules after vacation or other interruptions. It can also be helpful to children with autism or ADHD.
In addition, Litwin says that while melatonin supplements can be helpful, “I would not recommend using them without the input of your primary care provider or sleep specialist, in order to make certain you are using them correctly, safely, and that the dose you are using is appropriate for your child.”
Case Study: Our Son Won’t Sleep Alone!
Samantha and Jay Modi’s three-year-old son, Samir, had never been a stellar sleeper—but they dealt with co-sleeping (in their bed) and his meager naps because, well, they could. But when Samantha gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Divyana, suddenly, they realized two things: “Samir’s sleep issues weren’t typical,” says Samantha, a defense contractor for the Navy, “and we were exhausted.”
Once Divyana moved into the crib in her own room, where she slept (surprisingly) soundly, the Modis—who live in Lafayette—tried putting Samir to bed in his room. “It was two-plus hours of sitting in his room fighting him to go to sleep,” Samantha says. “We’d finally escape, and 30 or 45 minutes later, he’d be in our room.” After months of battles, Samantha was beat. “I told Jay, ‘For me to be a better mother for Samir, something has to change.’ We needed help.”
A desperate Google search led them to Rockabye Rockies, a pediatric sleep consultancy in Denver. Though they worried that Samir was too old for sleep training, Rockabye Rockies founder Gaby Wentworth promised them he wasn’t, and she could devise a plan that worked with their personalities and preferences.
The first step: a family meeting. “You set expectations with three- and four-year-olds,” Wentworth says. “You talk about being ‘super sleepers’ and why it’s important. You outline the bedtime routine and explain that you expect the child to sleep in his bed all night.” For Samir, Jay and Samantha emphasized that sleep helps him grow—and growing enables him to ride more attractions at Disneyland. “We really sold it,” Samantha says. “‘You can jump higher, you can get taller,’ we told him. That really played to his interests.”
The family outlined a bedtime routine: read two books, sing two songs, snuggle for two minutes, done. For the first few nights, Samantha or Jay sat in a chair by Samir’s bed but didn’t engage him. By the fifth night, they moved the chair to the door. A night or two later, they ditched the chair entirely. If Samir got up, they quietly ushered him back to bed.
All the while, the Modis communicated with Wentworth via texts and a web-based sleep log, where they would track progress and she would give feedback and encouragement. Samir wasn’t really napping, they mentioned, and Wentworth replied that without daytime sleep, his bedtime of 7:30 was too late. Try getting him down between 6 and 6:30, she advised. “Overtired kids have a harder time falling asleep,” she says—and she was right.
About 10 days into their new routine, Samir was falling asleep within about 10 minutes of his bedtime routine and mostly sleeping through the night in his own bed. He’s still an early riser, Samantha says, but the expectation is he stays in his room until his Hatch clock (which changes color when it hits the time a child can come out of his or her room) says 6 a.m. Wentworth helped her see that as long as he’s getting sufficient sleep, getting up early might be OK.
Today, the Modis are all well-rested. “Gaby’s program was life-changing for us,” Samantha says. “‘Freeing’ is maybe the right word. I have more time for my relationship with my husband, more time to read a book or relax at the end of the day. I’m a better mom,” she says. “Sleep makes all the difference.”
Rockabye Rockies offers two packages: $60 for a 30-minute phone call with a consultant (often just right for parents of newborns to three-month-olds) and $330 for a tailored sleep plan and a week of support to execute that plan.
Calming Bedtime Rituals
“When I pass our daughter off to her dad for milk and songs, I always tell her that she is my best girl, and she gives me a hug and pats my back with her little baby hands. It just melts my heart.”
—Elise Welch, mom of one from Denver
“As a teacher, I love reading with my oldest, and to the younger ones. I love sharing stories, and talking about the characters, and answering questions.”
—Katie Cothern, mom of three from Arvada
“I love to recite Psalms 23 before bed because I feel like it’s fairly calming and it also helps me to recenter myself. Sometimes I sing Amazing Grace to our son instead.”
—Laura Moody, mom of one from Arvada