Whether a parent has a baby, toddler or teen, sleep is a problematic issue at some point or the other for most families. Sometimes it's questioning whether they are spoiling the baby, or should they let them cry it out. Sometimes it's toddlers and young children sleeping in the family bed and parents being unsure how they are going to ever get them out (and get their own sleep back)! And then parents of teens don't know how to get their kids to go to bed before midnight and wake up before noon on weekends. Sleep issues last a lifetime, it is estimated that 50-70 million Americans have some sort of sleep related problem. Sleep deprivation has a significant impact on our minds, bodies, mood, judgment, memory and even our economy to the tune of over 400 billion dollars a year in losses. Bottom line- lack of sleep is a big deal.

No matter the age it seems like sleep can be a challenge

Sleep Begets Sleep. I first learned that term about 12 years ago and it has stayed with me when I think of sleep hygiene. Yes, sleep hygiene! It's a thing...

Today I won't break down sleep by the ages or this article will be too long Instead, I want to share what I did with in a recent session I had with a family and their thirteen year old son who was not sleeping well. 

The Smith family came in and shared that they have had issues with their 11 year old son's sleep since he was a baby. They described him as having colic and being a difficult kid to soothe. As he got older, he was "never a great sleeper." Sometimes as a toddler he would nap in strollers or car seats but not usually for longer than a half hour at a time. Throughout elementary school he slept in his parent's bed most nights and if they fought it and made him stay in his room he would cry and eventually sneak in their bed in the middle of the night. Now that he is in middle school, they feel he is too old (and big!) to sleep with them but they were out of ideas. Even their son admitted that, he too, was ready to be able to sleep in his own room but that since he has such a hard time falling asleep and then staying asleep he defaults to sleeping with his parents. 

This story is more common than most people think. I call kids sleeping in their parent's bed at night one of parenting's dirty little secrets as no one really likes to admit that it is happening in their home. This case has several elements of sleep challenges that have a variety of solutions. I thought I would share ideas that have been helpful for the whole family in getting a good night's sleep.


1. Nightmares - does your child wake up saying they have scary dreams? This is a common reason kids don't want to fall asleep or sleep alone. If this is

affecting your child consider doing things like calming mind exercises at night, using calming essential oils and allowing them to fall sleep with the door open so they know you will hear them and will come to them if they wake.

2. Lighting and temperature - Most parents initially think the lighting is fine in their child's rooms but typically after discussing it the child either thinks it's too bright or too dark. Consider nightlights, black out shades, dimmers, and check out that lights from technology aren't interfering such as from a TV. I will take about blue lights next but in this case I generally mean the little red power lights can disrupt sleep waves.

3. Technology - screens in the bedroom are a bad idea yet millions of people try to fall sleep every night in front of one. Between the light stimulation and the mental stimulation one of the unintended consequences of iPads and smart phones is poor sleep. Have rules around when screen time should end (before bed time routine begins) and stick to it.

4. Bedwetting - it is typical that between the ages of 4 and 5 children will be able to stay dry throughout the night. And many children wear pull ups or have pads under their sheets to help while training. However, if after the age of 6 your child is not yet able to stay dry throughout the night this will likely cause them distress. Work on a bedtime routine that includes a consistent and supportive approach so that your child gets the sleep they need. Remind them (and yourself) it won't always be this way and that they will learn.

5. They are used to a parent staying in the room - this is what I find most often is the culprit of poor sleep habits in kids. Parents who have gone from feeding and rocking their babies to sleep to laying down and falling sleep with their children. They think that sneaking out after they have fallen asleep is a success. However, this patterns can cause a bad habit of the child needing (versus wanting) you to be there to sleep. I suggest weaning off of this practice, setting goals and including the other parent in the weaning (since children typically prefer one parent over the other to "lay" with them).

6. Overtired - staying up too late, skipping naps, over-scheduling after school- all of these are a recipe for meltdowns and dysregulation. Try as best as possible to keep your child on a routine and to read the signs that their mind and body are overtired and respond to these signs. Also, short naps in the day is a great sleep hygiene tip for children even past the toddlers years into adulthood

7. Routine - this goes without saying that routines are helpful in most issues with kids. However, when it comes to sleep routines consider tips like music, guided imagery, reading, warm baths (at any age), audiobooks and even a quick exercise burst on the evening before bedtime can help get excessive energy out and then prepares the child for bedtime.

8. Health issues that include allergies, asthma, snoring, medications - all of these factors can negatively impact sleep so see your pediatrician if your child has an of these conditions and has a hard time with sleep. There may be solutions they suggest that will make all the difference for you and your family.

9. Stress and Anxiety - we can all understand that when we have stress it typically starts stirring through our minds at night just as your head hits the pillow and there is some silence to think. Kids and their worries are not exception. So- talk to your child at night, let them share what is on their mind for a few minutes and then offer them a way to put those worries to bed for the night. Creating language around containment (yes, psycho-babble term!) can be helpful in quieting the mind. 

10. Comforting object - such as a stuffed animal is usually a must for most children and plenty of teens as well. Teens may want a special blanket or that childhood puppy- let them have it. Give it meaning- tell them that their special object is there to help bring them comfort so they can relax and rest. 

Toddlers and pre-schoolers need anywhere between 11-14 hours of sleep a night. Your grade school children need 10 hours and teens need at least 9 hours of sleep. Helping your child get the sleep they need will positively affect their brain and body development, help with mood regulation and help with their ability to think and concentrate. Good sleep is right up there with nutrition and exercise so invest the time now. 

Happy Parenting!

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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