Ideas to Help Children with Anxiety Get to Sleep

Health Writer

Anxiety in children often interferes with sleep. Elementary age children might worry about a test in school, whether a parent is angry over a misbehavior or whether they are accepted and liked by their classmates. Younger children might worry there is a monster under their bed or be afraid of the dark. Just as with adults, these fears can swirl around their brains, making it difficult to fall asleep.

Sleep problems become a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep can increase anxiety, which in turn causes more problems with sleeping. Sleep deprivation can also cause problems in school or in behavior at home, which can make a child more upset and worried. When your child isn’t sleeping right, it shows up in all aspects of their life: behavioral, socially and academically.

The following are ideas to help you help your child get a better night’s sleep.

Set up a bedtime routine and start it one to two hours before bedtime. Bedtime routines help a child feel safe and secure. But bedtime routines shouldn’t start 15 minutes before a child climbs in bed. An hour or two before bedtime, start the transition between wakefulness and sleep. Try the following

  • Turn of all electronic devices, including televisions, computers and cell phones. The blue screens from these devices can stimulate the brain and simulate daytime light.
  • Dim the lights around the house to stimulate melatonin, which is the hormone that controls the wake/sleep cycle. There are melatonin supplements available, however, you should talk with your doctor before using these.
  • Have your child take a warm bath.
  • Engage in pillow-talk, giving your child a chance to bond with you before going to sleep.
  • Allow your child to read in bed for a set time before turning out the lights.

Slowly decrease the light in your child’s room. If your child is afraid of the dark, install dimmer switches so you can gradually decrease the amount of light or lower the wattage of light bulbs in lamps, working your way to a single night-light.

Teach your child to fact-check their worries. If your child tends to start talking about worries as you say good-night, create a “worry time” earlier in the day to give your child to voice their worries before bedtime. You might set up a short time right after school or after dinner when your child can list fears and concerns. During this time, you can teach your child to fact-check, for example, your child might worry about an upcoming test. You can ask for her to fact check by listing the times she has done well on other tests and give examples of how she studied for this test. Once she fact checks, work with her on rephrasing her concern from, “I am going to fail this test,” to “I have studied hard and will do my best on the test tomorrow.”

Create a worry doll or box to “hold” the fears overnight. You can use a doll, stuffed animal or a worry box to keep your child’s fear “safe” until morning. During your preset worry time, have your child tell their worry doll all their fears (or write the fears and place them in the box). Let your child know the fears are safe there. This enables your child to let go of fears, at least for the night.

Have your child list several pleasant activities they can think about while falling asleep. Your child might benefit from having a place to draw their attention when laying in bed trying to sleep. Your child might list going to the beach, playing with a friend, a favorite toy or an upcoming trip. Each time the fears start taking hold, changing focus to this thought can take their attention away from the fear. Before bed, talk about what thoughts your child wants to use tonight.

Use white noise. Some children find they are better able to calm their minds when there is a background noise. White noise can be from a fan on low or there are white noise machines you can use.

Remember, each child is different. You might find that one or two of these ideas work for you child while other ideas don’t seem to make a difference. Be sure to try ideas for several weeks before deciding whether the idea is helping or not. If your child is still having a problem sleeping, it might be time to talk to your pediatrician.

For more information on anxiety in children:

Suggestions for Classroom Accommodations for Children with Anxiety

Talking to Your Children About Anxiety

Interview with Diane Peters Mayer on Children with Anxiety

Signs of Anxiety in Children

Is it Normal Childhood Fears or is it an Anxiety Disorder?