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Why Won't My Child Sleep?

Moving through life without the benefit of a good night’s sleep can make a parent feel hopeless and exhausted. And if your child has no underlying medical problems, it can be difficult to pinpoint what is causing her inability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
We corralled several Dallas-Fort Worth sleep experts to offer some helpful advice on what could be causing these issues, how to solve them and when to seek the help of a physician.
Problem: Too many electronics
If your child routinely falls asleep in front of the TV or spends time on Snapchat before bed, excessive screentime may be the culprit. “There’s a normal wakefulness in a 90-minute sleep cycle and if [children] are falling asleep on these activities, then their brain is going to look for these activities to fall asleep again when it is awakened,” says Donna Persaud, M.D., chief of pediatric and adolescent medicine, Community Medicine division, at Parkland Health and Hospital System.
Electronics are not just disturbing to the sleep cycle — they can actually prevent the brain from making melatonin, a chemical necessary for sleep. And many electronic devices emit a blue light, which can be more stimulating than giving your child a cup of coffee.
Solution: No electronics before bed
Go around with a basket or a hat and collect your kids’ phones, tablets and other electronics two hours before bedtime, recommends Keisha Shaheed, D.O., physician at Children’s Health Sleep Disorder Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Problem: Limit-setting sleep disorder
Most insomnias are actually behavioral issues, explains David Brown, Ph.D., sleep psychologist at Children’s Health. These behavioral insomnias can affect up to one-third of children.
One such insomnia called limit-setting sleep disorder is brought about when parents fail to put enough constraints on their child. The children resist going to bed at night and constantly negotiate to delay bedtime — and win.
Solution: Establish a bedtime routine and set strict limits
“A bedtime routine should be very consistent,” Brown says. “It should be a clear indication to the child that it is about to be bedtime.”
This time can be spent taking a bath, putting on pajamas or reading books together. But whatever the bedtime routine looks like, Brown warns parents to stick to the rules. “If you say two books, then stick with that. If the parent gives in to pleading for more, they can make the behavior worse.”
Problem: Sleep-onset association disorder
Many new parents lay their child in bed only after she has fallen asleep. This becomes a problem if the child becomes dependent on her parents to fall back to sleep. Thankfully, this sleep disorder can also be corrected with changes to behavioral patterns.
Solution: The “Excuse me” drill
The object of this solution is to be out of the room when the child falls asleep. After the bedtime routine is complete, continue to excuse yourself from the room for various reasons (e.g., to check on the dishes, a sibling or the laundry), staying away a little longer each time you’re out of the room.
“Keep doing this until the child falls asleep without you in the room,” Brown says. “The connection we’re trying to make with the child is that they fell asleep without somebody there.”
Problem: Parents with poor sleep habits
When parents model bad sleep hygiene — falling asleep in front of the TV, using their electronic devices in bed — their child mimics these behaviors and may have the same sleep issues, Persaud says. “I talk to a lot of parents about their sleep habits because we are trying to reach out to them to change things that would change the household.”
Solution: Educate yourself
Persaud tries to educate parents about good sleep habits along with eating right and exercising. This knowledge motivates parents to create good sleep habits of their own, which will help maintain a healthy sleep environment in the home. “When the adult is motivated to change, it increases the likelihood that they will come through on the changes for their child,” she says.
Shaheed recommends sleepfoundation.org as a resource for parents looking to make changes in the family sleep pattern.
Problem: Nightmares
Nightmares bring about fear and anxiety in children. Your child may remember a bad dream and become afraid to fall asleep the following night, fearing she will return to the dream.
Solution: Comfort and engage your child
“If your child has a nightmare, comfort them and allow them to say the dream and engage them in a discussion,” Persaud says. “Tell them, ‘See, Daddy’s still here, Mommy’s still here.’ Persaud adds that drawing a picture of the dream may help your child express and alleviate her feelings of fear.
Problem: Overcompensating for lack of sleep
“Saturday night is the biggest problem,” Persaud says. “Adolescents tend to stay up late on Saturday night and wake up late on Sunday morning, which interferes with their ability to sleep the next night.”
Solution: Don’t sleep too late on the weekends
“If your usual wake-up time during the week is 6 or 7, then show some restraint on Saturday or Sunday,” Persaud suggests. “Plan activities that are fun and that you will look forward to waking up for on these days.”
When to see a doctor
Shaheed says it might be time to see a specialist if your child is taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep after the lights have been turned out and the bedtime routine executed. “And if your child is snoring more than three nights a week, and it’s loud, that is a reason to get them evaluated,” she adds.
Brown asserts that the earlier these problems can be fixed, the better it will be for the child in the long run. “The more parents know and the more aggressive they become with improving their children’s sleep, the better it will be for all of us.”