One in three Australian children experiences poor sleep, research shows. Here’s how you can encourage better bedtime habits.

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Sleep is essential for all of us – it’s vital time to recharge, so we can feel and perform at our best each day. But sleeping well is a skill we need to learn. And for children who have difficulty falling or staying asleep, a little extra help can make a big difference for the whole family.

Child behavioural sleep problems are very common. In fact, the Australasian Sleep Association says up to 35% of children experience sleep troubles, leading to a number of challenges for both children and parents. Sleep problems are particularly common in children with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.

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Dealing with a tired and crabby child can be difficult, as all parents know well. But the effects of poor sleep can be much bigger than that. Sleep troubles can also impact kids’ mental health, learning and overall wellbeing, as well as impacting parents’ own sleep and mental health.

Research tells us that children suffering from sleep problems are twice as likely to experience poor social relationships, poor performance at school as well as behavioural issues like aggression and hyperactivity,” says Professor Harriet Hiscock, who leads the community health services research group at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

“We need to remember that sleep is a learnt skill. A sleep specialist can help develop a management plan, but parents can also better arm themselves by being aware of optimal sleep conditions such as stopping screen time at least an hour before bed.”

What causes sleep problems in children?

While child sleep problems can be caused by things like obstructive sleep apnoea, they are more commonly behavioural in origin. In other words, they’re usually linked to behaviour around bedtime.

Sleep issues can take different forms. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, some of the most common problems are not getting into bed, trouble falling asleep, not staying in their own bed, waking during the night, and waking up too early in the morning.

Sometimes these behaviours start after a disruption or change of some kind – like after moving house, starting school, going on a holiday, being sick or family upsets. However, some children will have had these troubles from an early age.

As Professor Hiscock and Dr Katrina Hannan explain in Australian Family Physician, many sleep problems arise when children become accustomed to going to sleep a certain way, for example, being rocked or fed to sleep. When they wake up, they expect to go back to sleep the same way and may have trouble settling themselves without a parent.

MORE: Does your child have sleep apnoea?

Tips for managing sleep problems

The good news is, there are steps parents can take to help encourage better sleeping habits. Here are a few things to try.

  • Set a strict bed time. Going to bed at the same time each night will help your child sleep more easily, and wake up at a consistent time. Be prepared to be firm if your little one resists going to bed. It may get worse for a little bit before it gets better.

  • Create a bedtime routine. Try to have 30-60 minutes of quiet time before bed. You can include things like a bath, pyjamas, cleaning teeth, a toilet visit, a bedtime story, a kiss goodnight and lights out. Try not to let your child stall.

  • Limit stimulation before bed. Keep your child away from screens (including TVs, smartphones, tablets and computers) for at least one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from these screens can make it harder to fall asleep. It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards.

  • Keep the bedroom dark and quiet. Good sleep hygiene includes having a calming sleep environment, as free from disturbances as possible.

  • Try relaxation exercises. If your child has trouble switching off their thoughts after lights out, simple breathing or relaxation exercises can help. You could also try playing some soft, quiet music.

  • Teach children to fall asleep without you. Once you’ve established a bedtime routine and good sleep hygiene, make sure your child can fall asleep without you. There are several methods you can try, including controlled comforting and camping out.

  • Talk to your doctor. Your GP can provide advice and support and refer you to a sleep specialist if your child is still having problems.