Helping Children with Sleep Anxiety

by | Sep 4, 2018

This blog is by the lovely Lauren Peacock from Little Sleep Stars.  I know bedtimes and sleeping is an issue for many parents, so I asked if she would write a guest blog for me and she agreed.  In this blog she shares her ideas on helping children who are worried about going to sleep, part 2 will follow next week where she shares her step-by-step guide to helping anxious children sleep well.

helping anxious children sleep


I am often asked how to help a child who is exhibiting signs of anxiety around their sleep. The first thing I always want to understand is whether the child is anxious in other aspects of their daily life or if the issue pertains only to sleep. Clearly a different approach is required for a child who shows little-to-no signs of anxiety until bedtime approaches versus one who exhibits more widespread and persistent anxiety affecting other aspects of their daily life.


Common bedfellows

Unsurprisingly, anxiety and sleep problems often go hand-in-hand. Whether it is anxiety driving the sleep challenges or the lack of sleep worsening the anxiety, an anxious brain is not very good at switching off and being relaxed enough to sleep. When it takes a long time to fall asleep (more than 20 minutes or so), it typically creates faults in what sleep professionals refer to as “sleep hygiene” – which has nothing to do with how clean your bedding is and everything to do with the habits and practices that are necessary to take good-quality night-time sleep. Unsurprisingly, the ideal is to spend the time we are in our bed asleep, rather than lying there awake (or worse still, worrying).

Falling asleep isn’t the only challenge. Anxiety has been shown to affect the architecture of sleep as it causes us to spend a greater proportion of our night in REM sleep, at the cost of reduced NREM/slow-wave sleep which is the deeper and more restorative form of slumber. This “wrong type” of sleep causes us to wake still feeling tired, despite the full night of shut-eye.

In children, sleep problems are sometimes the most obvious manifestation of anxiety – typically appearing in the form of bedtime resistance, frequent night-waking, requests for extended parental presence, fear of the dark or nightmares. A word of caution here however – many of these things can also stem from poor boundaries and parental inconsistency!


A boundary dispute or something more?

Therefore, if a parent reports seeing no signs of anxiety in their child at other times, save for very normal and temporary periods of separation anxiety, I would generally look initially at how the family applies boundaries. Bedtime does not exist in a vacuum – children ordinarily expect the same from their parents round the clock and so a child who sees in the daytime that he can hold out long and hard enough for a boundary to move, is unlikely to accept that night-time boundaries are any less flexible.

But what of a situation where a family does have gentle and clear boundaries which are consistently enforced and/or a child shows genuine signs of anxiety? Whilst almost all children feel anxious from time-to-time, we know that a troubling presentation of anxiety is more prevalent in children who: were born to mothers who were stressed, anxious or depressed (pre and/or postnatally); have a disorganised or insecure attachment to their primary caregiver; lack or have lacked support for emotional regulation; have been exposed to traumatic events (even indirectly); have been bullied; are behaviourally-inhibited/extremely shy; and those with ASD, Asperger’s, sensory processing disorders and/or an unusually high IQ

Children with notable anxiety need support beyond my remit as a sleep specialist. A family that has recognised their child’s anxiety and sought professional guidance may be utilising techniques such as promoting self-confidence through giving their child opportunities to succeed, big-body play (where sensory-processing abilities will allow), role-modelling and supporting emotional regulation and emotion coaching. These, and other techniques, can be successfully applied to sleep.


Never alone

The most general piece of advice with a child exhibiting anxiety around their sleep may seem obvious but is still worth noting: I would never suggest that a parent uses an out-of-the-room strategy with an anxious child. Children need parental help and support to recognise and manage anxiety and to develop their ability to regulate their emotions. Taking smaller steps successfully, even if this means a parent camping out in their child’s room initially, will lead to a less stressful, more positive process and ultimately to long-lasting sleep success.

To read my step-by-step guide to helping an anxious child find sleep confidence, read the second instalment of this two-part mini-series, coming soon…


Little Sleep Stars is owned by former tired mummy Lauren Peacock. We create gentle, bespoke sleep plans enabling babies and children to reach their sleep potential. No two children are the same and nor are any two sleep plans but with the right, tailored and gentle plan in place, any child can learn to sleep well. All consultations are carried out using web-based video-conferencing and Lauren works with clients throughout the UK and overseas.