Childhood Anxiety and Sleep


Childhood anxiety and sleep problems  are common. Nighttime is a period of long separation from parents and may trigger children's worst fears. Children who have separation anxiety may begin the worry about going to sleep several hours before bedtime. Getting them in bed and through their nighttime routine can be difficult.

Lack of Sleep Exacerbates the Anxiety

Once in bed, these children may continue to worry and ruminate on and off throughout the night. Unfortunately, sleep problems in children with separation anxiety can exacerbate their day time anxiety.

Think about how your day goes when you have had a sleepless and anxiety filled night. You feel tired worn down and less able to use your best coping skills.

Lack of a sound sleep has the same impact on children. Sleep deprived kids will be more vulnerable to feel overwhelmed,depressed, and anxious during the day time.

It is important to insure your child gets a sound sleep, and probably important to you and your family that they follow their evening routine and settle as easily as possible.

Typical symptoms of childhood anxiety and sleep problems

  • Behavioral problems as bed time nears.
  • Desperate attempts to stay up later and to prolong bed time.
  • Begging parents to sleep with them or climbing into bed with them.
  • Reports of nightmares or actually crying out in the night.
  • Asking repeatedly for things or calling parents once put to bed.

There is a wonderful children’s book” Bedtime for Frances” that illustrates the phenomena of delaying separation from parents at bedtime.

Frances, a little badger is put to bed by her mother. Frances is convinced that there are frightening things in her room that will surely get her if she is left alone. She comes up with every tactic imaginable not to be alone in the room. Her badger parents at first patient, begin to lose their temper as the story progresses.

Although we can laugh at the strategies children use to keep from having to go to bed, sleep problems in children are serious, disruptive, and upsetting to the entire family.

Childhood Anxiety and Sleep: Tips to help your child feel safe and sleep through the night

  • Acknowledge your child’s anxiety but do not give in to it. If you allow your child to sleep with you or to stay up later you are assisting your child in avoiding their anxiety. Avoidance is Reinforcing. The more you do it the less likely the child will be able to conquer their sleep problems.
  • Do not get angry at your child. This will exacerbate their anxiety and make them feel more helpless. Your child is not being bad. Children with sleep problems who have separation anxiety may actually feel terror. They feel that their lives will be in jeopardy if they go in to their bedroom alone.
  • As with all sleep problems, create good sleep hygiene.Do not allow your child to have caffeine and sugar later in the day.Minimize stimulation and have a winding down period in the evening.Create routine and predictability the last few hours of the day.Dim the lighting and incorporate relaxing activities into their bedtime routine.Bedtime stories, baths, scented calming candles can all assist with sleep problems in children with separation anxiety.
  • Find out what your child is afraid of.Are they afraid of:Something happening to you?Monsters?The dark?Something happening to them?
  • Discuss their fears and brainstorm with your child what would make them feel safer.
  • Reassure them of their safety and your own and put measures in place to assist them in creating a greater sense of security.
  • Use your creativity and model a positive, can do, problem solving attitude.
  • For example, if your child is afraid of something happening to you tell them what your routine will be after they go to bed. Ensure them other people will be up in the house to take care of you or whatever it takes to assuage their fears.

    If they are afraid of something happening to them you can get a night light, leave the door ajar, or check on them to assure them they are safe. If you have the flexibility to, you can move the child's bedroom so they are closer to you.

  • Allow them to hear your voice record reading stories, or play soothing calming music, nature sounds white noise , or whatever is preferable to them.
  • Reinforce successful nights with praise, and a sticker chart that they can cash in at the end of the week for something they want.

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.