Young one struggling to sleep? Tips to figure out why and how to improve it.
Grumpy and difficult kids can be the result of a poor night’s sleep. One night is ok, but continued poor sleep can start to affect daily behaviour. Most kids will sleep well, but like adults, they can go through patches of poor sleep. This can be problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or just having poor-quality sleep. There can be a variety of reasons for sleep issues, so we have put together some questions to help you try and get to the bottom of your kid’s sleep issues.
Are they going through a growth spurt?
Kids tend to go through phases when they grow rapidly, then fill out. Teens do the same, but also have hormonal changes too. At these times of rapid development children will need more nutrients. For example, growing bones require many vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. The body will prioritise their use for building new structures, but these nutrients are also required to make our sleep hormones.
This can result in children having trouble dropping off or staying asleep. They might also complain of twitchy legs when they get into bed or generally of achy legs or joints. Supporting good levels of these key nutrients could make all the difference for a good night's sleep.
Is your child stressed about something?
Quite often when there is a change in life situation a child might become stressed and anxious and this can affect their sleep. Starting school, changing schools or a change in family situation may be enough to arouse anxiety and start the release of stress chemicals like cortisol that can keep them awake or wake kids in the night.
You might also notice other nervous behaviors during the day that would give you clues that your child is stressed. For example, mood changes, irritability, avoidance of situations, poor eating or concentration problems.
Is something in their diet not agreeing with them?
Sometimes what we eat affects our mood and sleep. For kids who seem too wound up to go to sleep look at what they are eating and drinking. Triggers for kids being wired could be too much sugar, caffeine or additives in processed foods.
Sometimes food intolerances can affect sleep. For example, for some children, gluten-containing foods can make them overstimulated. Sometimes gluten, dairy or other intolerant foods can give stomach aches that might affect sleep. Dairy is also commonly linked with breathing issues, which can lead to snoring and sleep apnea in extreme cases.
Eating too late or too close to bedtime can fuel energy that kids don’t need at that time of night.
Have they developed bad habits?
Children can develop bad habits around sleep behviours. For younger kids it might be getting out of bed and coming into the family room on a number of creative pretexts, getting into bed with parents or needing a parent to stay in their room when they go to sleep.
Teens might be having sneaky device times chatting to friends or looking at TikTok, gaming or putting off homework until late at night. Bedtime routines are important for the brain and body to relax ready for sleep, so bad habbits should be stopped before they become set in.
Tips for a good night’s sleep
Hopefully, some of the above questions have helped identify some causes of your child’s sleep issues. Here are some tips to help you support them to get a better night’s sleep.
Rebalancing your brain chemicals for awake and asleep times can be as easy as spending more time outdoors. We need the contrast of being out in the light to make chemicals like cortisol that keep us sharp and then experience evening darkness so we make serotonin and melatonin that make us sleepy at night. Make sure kids get outside daily to get that light/dark contrast.
Get kids moving
Exercise is great for releasing feel good hormones that help us feel more happy and relaxed. Studies have shown that 3 to 5 days of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for 45-60 minutes benefits physical and mental wellness in children.
1 In terms of sleep a study on school-age children showed that the more active children were, the shorter the time for them to fall asleep. Exercising outdoors also confers the benefit of daylight exposure.
Drop the devices
Remove devices and games at least an hour before bed. The blue light on devices tells the brain it is still daytime and stops the production of melatonin our sleep hormone. Devices and games stimulate the mind and keep kids alert. Not what they need for relaxing for sleep.
Think about drinks
Sugary drinks can affect relaxation if you are having them late in the afternoon or in the evening. Try sticking with water later in the day or milk in the evening as this contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is needed to make our sleep hormones. Milk also contains lactium a substance shown to help make you feel calmer.
For bigger kids make sure they are not consuming too many caffeinated drinks, energy or sports drinks, especially later in the day.
Minerals for growth
Topping up key bone minerals such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D can make all the difference to a child’s sleep if they are going through a growth spurt. Calcium and magnesium are needed for falling asleep, but also for healthy sleep patterns. Both are found in the same kinds of foods such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin D is also found in eggs and oily fish, so increase these types of food, but also remember that spending time outdoors in sunshine is also important for making vitamin D.
Stick with routines
It is important to establish a routine for kids, both younger and older, for going to bed. Research shows that kids with good bedtime routines have better sleep in terms of falling asleep, staying asleep and sleep duration. Encourage kids into an established routine, for example, send them off at a set time to clean their teeth and sit in bed and read.
The advice is also to try and maintain similar patterns at the weekend, when with teens who might be tempted to go to bed later and sleep in late.
Around stress and anxiety
When looking at younger children they can often get triggered around bedtime. For instance, if they are going through a phase of being afraid of the dark use a nightlight or give them a toy for comfort at these times. Avoid any scary stories around bedtime. Herbs such as passionflower and chamomile can help support relaxation before going to bed. Let’s Dream Drops our natural sleep remedy, features these two herbs in researched amounts for calming kids for sleep, plus magnesium to cover off those growth spurts.
For all children, sit down with them and see if there is anything on their minds at the moment. Ideally, do this during the day rather than just before you want them to go to sleep. Let them know you are there to help if they need help working through an issue.
Another herb that can be useful in supporting kids through an anxious, stressful time is saffron. It helps the nervous system adapting to stress, supports relaxation and can help with low mood which can also be a factor in sleep issues. This is why saffron is a key ingredient in Good Mood Chews.
About the author
Naturopath (Dip. Naturopathy, Dip. Herbal Medicine)
Jane is a NMHNZ qualified Naturopath and Medical Herbalist with over ten years experience as a successful private practitioner and consultant.
She has also worked on the Clinicians brand for over ten years and is heavily involved in formulating all of our new products.
Natural health is her passion and in her spare time, Jane can be seen at the gym, on the golf course or in the garden growing veges.
- Hosker DK, Elkins RM, Potter MP. Promoting Mental Health and Wellness in Youth Through Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Sleep. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2019 Apr;28(2):171-193. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2018.11.010. Epub 2019 Feb 6. PMID: 30832951.
- https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/158482#1 Accessed 22-6-23
- Hale, L., Berger, L. M., LeBourgeois, M. K., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2011). A longitudinal study of preschoolers’ language-based bedtime routines, sleep duration, and well-being. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 25(3), 423–433. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21517173/