How to Help Kids Get the Sleep They Need

It isn’t just you: Kids of all ages are getting less sleep than is ideal for their growth and development. Learn how to identify sleep issues and help your child and family sleep better.

A little asian boy sleeping in white and blue stripped pajamas. A rubber ducky is beside him in bed with a light display illuminating the wall behind him.
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Going into parenthood, we’re told to expect some sleepless nights. But what we don’t usually bargain for is that sleep challenges can last well beyond the baby years. It’s not something that is widely researched, reported, or even discussed, but even “big kids” struggle with sleep. And yes, that includes including middle and high schoolers.

Let’s take a look at sleep deprivation in kids: how common it is for kids to have poor sleep, how it affects kids, plus what experts say you can do to help your kids — and by extension your whole family — sleep better at night.

It’s not just you: Many kids aren’t getting the sleep that they need

If you are in the “my kids won’t sleep” boat, you’re far from alone. According to a 2021 study from the CDC, about 35% of kids aged 4 months to 17 years aren’t getting adequate sleep each night.

The researchers analyzed 2016–2018 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). Overall, almost 35% of kids didn't get the recommended amount of sleep for their age, with 40% of 4–11-month-old children falling short, and 31% of kids aged 13–17 also not catching their needed zzz’s.

What exactly does it mean for kids not to get enough sleep? In the study, that was defined as less than 12 hours in 24 hours for babies, less than 10–11 hours for kids aged 1–5, less than nine hours for elementary-aged kids, and less than eight hours for tweens and teens. These sleep minimums align with CDC recommendations for healthy sleep duration for kids.

Of course, some kids seem to do well even if they sleep somewhat less than these recommended hours. But parents don’t need a clock to tell them when their kids aren’t getting enough sleep. Our kids are pretty good about letting us know when they’re sleep deprived — lack of sleep can hinder emotional regulation and temperament, energy levels, focus, social skills, and more, including just an overall case of crankiness.

How does sleep deprivation impact kids?

It’s not just moodiness and temper tantrums that result when kids are sleep deprived. “Kids need sleep to grow their bodies and brains,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine psychologist and advisor. “Poor sleep can decrease their immune function, make them more prone to physical and mental health problems, and impair their cognitive function and academic performance.”

Additionally, according to the CDC, lack of sleep in kids can cause:

  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Increased likelihood of injuries
  • Decreased ability to pay attention
  • Behavioral issues

Interestingly, lack of sleep can cause hyperactivity, making it seem like a kid is not tired at all. “Lack of sleep can even simulate ADHD symptoms, so sometimes parents think their kids can't sleep because they're ‘wired,’ but really, this hyperactivity is a sign that the kids desperately need sleep,” Wu describes.

Tips for tackling sleep issues in kids

If you’re like most parents with a sleep-deprived child, it’s not as though you haven’t tried to make sure your child gets the sleep that they need. In fact, most of us have tried everything we can think of to get our kids enough sleep…from instituting super-strict bedtimes to eliminating sugar to singing every lullaby in the book.

We’ve gathered up some out-of-the-box ideas for getting kids to sleep — for parents who’ve already tried it all.

Set strong sleep fundamentals

According to Wu, the fundamentals that matter most when it comes to ensuring a good night’s sleep include:

  • Not getting overtired or overstimulated
  • Consistent sleep-wake schedules
  • Good nutrition and exercise during the day
  • A predictable and consistent bedtime routine that doesn't include screens
  • Making sure bedtime is not too early or too late

Be consistent

Getting kids to sleep well means being consistent, using evidence-based techniques, and giving those techniques time to work. Wu often finds that parents try tips they find online. “It doesn't necessarily mean they've tried evidence-based approaches that are tailored to their family/child,” she says. Moreover, many parents test an approach and then give up when they don’t see immediate results.

Remove stress and anxiety from bedtime

As many adults know, sleep and stress do not mix. Stress can make it hard to fall asleep and having trouble falling asleep can be stressful — a self-perpetuating cycle. According to Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist, advisor, and author of “The Sleep Solution” and “The Rested Child” sometimes parents unintentionally make sleep more stressful for their kids.

It can be easy to give your child subtle clues that they are doing something wrong when it comes to sleep, without really meaning to, he explains. “You might say, ‘Listen, you’ve got to get to sleep or you won't be healthy, you won't make the basketball team, you'll do badly on your math quiz,’” Winter suggests. This anxiety gets transferred from you to your child, and can lead to trouble falling asleep.

Being more mindful about how you frame bedtime for your child — and taking off the pressure — can make a huge difference, says Winter.

Stop announcing bedtime

“It’s time for bed!” you gingerly announce at 8 p.m. sharp. Your child’s response? For many parents, this triggers an instant battle or lengthy negotiation. If bedtime turns into a battleground every night, Wu recommends that you stop telling your kids to go to bed.

“The idea is to transfer the responsibility for announcing bedtime from you [the parent] to something else, so you don't have a power struggle with your child,” she says. That could mean programming a certain lamp to turn on or off at bedtime, or cueing up specific music to play — anything that routinely signals it’s time for bed.

“You can also give your child a small responsibility at the beginning of the bedtime routine, such as putting their favorite toy to bed and kissing it goodnight,” Wu suggests. The idea is that by giving your child ownership of bedtime — and not making it about your own needs — many of the bedtime battles should diminish.

Adjust your expectations (and possibly your child’s bedtime) to suit your child

Winter finds that many times when parents complain about their child’s sleep, they’re misconstruing the situation. “For the vast majority of kids who have sleep problems, it's not a kid sleep problem,” he says. “It's a parent expectation problem.”

For example, Winter says many parents have an idea that their child should be asleep by 7 p.m. But they have a preschooler with a 7 p.m. bedtime who doesn’t actually fall asleep till 9 p.m. He sleeps 10 hours at night and takes a one-hour nap each day. Yes, the bedtime is late, but he’s getting 11 hours a night, which is plenty for his age.

“So when somebody says to me, we put our child down at this time, and it always takes him two hours to fall asleep, I think we need to take a look at his bedtime,” Winter says. “How did you arrive at this bedtime, especially in the face of all this evidence that’s saying your child is definitely not sleepy at that time?”

The bottom line? As long as your child is getting the right number of hours of sleep, it doesn’t really matter what time they go to bed.

Fix drawn-out bedtime requests with a pass system

Many children learn that they can prolong bedtime by making actually falling asleep a play in seven acts: one more kiss, one more blanket adjustment…

Wu fixes this with a novel approach. “Give your child one to two nighttime ‘passes,’” she suggests. “Each pass buys them one request, and they get to decide how to spend it (e.g., spend one pass at bedtime to request one additional story, spend another one overnight to request some water).” These nighttime “passes” tend to reduce the number of “curtain calls” and nighttime requests, Wu says.

Be sure your child’s room is sleep optimized

Study after study proves that sleep is improved when a bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet, and the same is true for kids. Nightlights (or full lights), loud noises from adults’ nightly binge watches, or a stuffy room can hinder sleep. Additionally, many parents underestimate the need for a supportive bed. Since kids need their sleep more than adults, and are growing and developing rapidly, a supportive bed is more important than ever.

When to see a pediatric sleep specialist

Sometimes, no matter what you try, your child still doesn’t seem to be getting the sleep they need.

If you’re concerned that your child may have a sleep issue, Wu shares a few common signs of sleep problems in kids:

  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Excessive hyperactivity during the day
  • Snoring
  • Frequent bedtime power struggles
  • Frequent awakenings at night
  • Sleep problems that cause a lot of stress or interfere with family functioning

If this describes your child, Wu recommends contacting a pediatric sleep specialist, a health professional who diagnoses and treats sleep disorders in children. “A pediatric sleep specialist may refer the family to other services if their assessment determines that the child does not have a sleep disorder,” she says.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to seek support. Even if your child doesn’t have a serious sleep condition, we all could use a little help when it comes to sleep.