What to Do When a Child Won't Go to Bed

Why kids fight sleep and how to handle this common problem in kids

son waking sleeping mom - child won't go to bed
Look familiar? Here's what to do when your child won't go to bed. Blend Images/KidStock/Getty Images

The problem of a child fighting sleep or not going to bed isn’t something that only occurs in the baby and toddler years. As many parents know, refusing to go to bed or having trouble falling asleep can be an all-too-common problem for school-age children as well.

As frustrating as this problem may be, parents need to be aware that it’s important to address it as soon as possible. That’s because getting enough sleep and being well-rested is particularly crucial for school-age kids.

While going to bed on time and getting enough rest is important for kids at any age, children who are in school who do not get enough sleep can experience trouble concentrating, paying attention, and learning. Lack of sleep can also affect kids’ moods, physical development, and even their ability to fight off illness and infections.

Why Your Child May Be Fighting Sleep

If your child is consistently having trouble getting to bed and staying asleep, try to pinpoint the cause. Here are some common reasons why a child may be fighting sleep or having difficulty staying asleep.

  • Kids have different sleep needs.
    As with adults, individual children need different amounts of sleep. Some may do just fine on 9 hours of sleep a night while other kids need at least 11 or more to feel rested. But keep in mind that on average, most school-age children need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Watch for signs that your child is not getting enough sleep such as not being able to get up easily in the morning, having difficulty concentrating, or being hyperactive.
  • Your child may not want to leave the excitement.
    If your child is told that it’s time for bed but the rest of the family -- and especially older siblings -- are still up and having fun watching TV or talking, your child may feel left out and not want to go to bed.
  • There isn’t enough of a transition to bed.
    If kids are revved up from watching TV, playing, or doing homework, it can be tough for them to make a sudden transition to going to bed and falling asleep. You’re likely to have more success getting your child to sleep if you make sure he has some quiet downtime before he goes to bed.
  • She is overtired.
    Between homework, play dates, and after-school activities, school-age children can be up way too late into the night. And being overtired can actually lead to hyperactivity in many kids, which can make it even more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime. If your child is regularly up past her bedtime working on homework, find ways to manage her other after-school activities to make more time for homework or talk to your child’s teacher about how to help her with her workload. You can also try to schedule homework for right after school so that she finishes her schoolwork before she has a play date or other after-school activity.
  • He is not tired enough.
    If your child is taking a nap late in the afternoon after school, it may be interfering with his bedtime. Try to have him do his schoolwork early and give him an early dinner so that he can go to bed earlier in the evening. On weekends or in the summer, make sure he is active and has a busy day so that he is tired by bedtime.
  • She is asserting her growing independence.
    School-age kids are constantly flexing their newfound independence muscles, and bedtime can be one of those areas over which they want to exercise control. Try to give her choices between specific things as much as possible (“Would you like these pajamas or these other pajamas?” or “Would you like a bubble bath or a bath without bubbles?”) but make bedtime a firm and non-negotiable rule.
  • He is anxious or stressed about something.
    School-age kids may be worried about something at school (homework, tests, fitting in, or even bullies). They may be anxious about a change or development in their lives (a new school, making friends, not having enough time with a parent who is working longer hours, etc.). And a movie or a book that frightened them or caused anxious thoughts -- whether or not it was a scary story -- could also interfere with sleep. Anxiety and worry can interfere with kids’ sleep, just as it can prevent grownups from getting a good night’s rest.

Solutions to Make Bedtime Easier

Try these strategies to make it easier for kids to go to bed and fall asleep at bedtime. If the problem persists, you may want to have your child evaluated by your pediatrician and/or a sleep specialist.

  • Set up a good bedtime routine.
    You already know that bath and story time are great ways to get your child settled (something you’ve probably set up since he was a toddler). But also remember to turn off the TV and any other electronics at least an hour before bed. If your child absolutely insists that he is not tired, have him read quietly in his room (or read one or two short chapters to him if he’s beginning to read) or listen to soothing music. Another great idea to try: Get some lovely-scented massage oil and rub a few drops onto his back while the lights are dimmed.
  • Make evenings quiet and peaceful.
    Turn off the TV and don’t let your child be on the computer or on any kind of screen for at least an hour before bed since these activities are stimulating and can interfere with falling asleep and staying asleep. Instead, try playing some soothing music and dim the lights. You can also try having other members of the family, including yourself and older siblings, put on pajamas when your grade-schooler does so that the entire house goes into a relaxed mode as bedtime nears.
  • Have consistent bedtimes.
    Try to keep bedtime consistent, even on the weekends and during the summer. (Yes, it can be hard to get kids to bed by 9 when the sun doesn’t begin to set till after 8:30, but it’s a good idea to prevent bedtime from sliding toward the 10 or 11 o’clock hour, only to have kids adjust to a new sleep schedule once school starts.)
  • Make her bedroom comfortable.
    Get the TV out of her room and make sure it’s not too hot, which can interfere with sleep. If she doesn’t like the dark, pick out a nightlight together. And try this tip: If she normally does homework at her desk in her room, try having her use another area, such as the kitchen table, as a homework workspace so that she uses her bedroom only to relax and sleep.
  • Do not give in.
    If your child gets up for that 3rd drink of water and 4th trip to the potty, you may be tempted in your exhaustion to let him stay up or to let him sleep in your bed. Or you may feel guilty about making him go to bed when he hasn’t had a lot of time with you after you’ve come home from work. But if he does not learn how to be restful and fall asleep in his room, you will only be prolonging the sleep problems he is experiencing. Be gentle, soothing, and calm, but be firm. Have him get back into bed when all his needs are met and tell him that he must stay there. Turn on the nightlight, leave the door open a crack, and let him know that you will check on him every few minutes, but tell him that he must stay in bed. And be sure to set up some one-on-one time with him on the weekends when you can do something fun together.
  • Let go of expectations.
    Try not to think about what your child should be doing at her age. Comparing her to other children her age or expecting her to go to bed promptly and not have any problems simply because she is a big kid will only lead to frustration on your part. Instead, think about what might be causing her to fight sleep and work with her as a team to figure out how you can fine tune her daytime and nighttime routines to help her go to bed and get a good night’s rest. Adjust bedtimes and wake-up times gradually to find what works for your child, and be patient: Eventually, you will find a schedule that works for your child and your family.

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