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Helping Older Kids Fall Asleep

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9-year-old's persistent insomnia

Jan 2010

Our 9 year-old has pretty persistent insomnia: most nights (3/5) can't fall asleep within two hours of going to bed, and some nights (1/5) comes into our room in tears around midnight because he's so frustrated.

We put him (and our other kids) to bed around 8-8:30, allow him to read for 30 minutes (he LOVES reading) and then ask him to turn out the lights. We typically finish dinner by 6:30 and have a small dessert (couple of cookies, small dish of ice cream) by 7.

I'd love to hear about any experience or expertise people have with this! Michael


You may want to reconsider the dessert items at night. Your child's body may no longer be able to work through the sugar so late in the day. (My child can't have anything sweet to eat that is processed after, say, four in the afternoon.) You may also want to ask your child to read something calming after the 30 minutes of what he wants to read. Maybe he could take some time to write about his worries that are keeping him awake. Maybe he could do (with one of his parents) a brief meditation after reading, to get himself and his brain calmed down for the night. Maybe a hot shower? Maybe some time to just chat with his parent(s) after the younger siblings go to bed? My fondest memories are of my father coming in to talk with me about my day, after my siblings were in bed. We talked for 15 minutes or so, and then he came over and turned out my light for me. I am sure your child will have some great ideas too. anon
Two comments: 1. The dessert has to go! No more refined sugar after dinner. Replace it with organic fruit. It can be done. My daughter is 12 now and that's what she has been getting for years. Make sure the adults adopt this healthier attiude for themselves too or I can't see this work. 2. What is the contents of the books? If it is adventure stories or science fiction that is way too wild to fall asleep after. I have been reading to my daughter at bedtime for half an hour since she was little. So I am aware of nice, mellow stories while she will turn over and close her eyes and listen. One last hug, lights out and she is asleep within 5 minutes. At the age of 12, she gets ready at 8pm, is in bed by 8:30pm and either shuts the light off or reads a non-violent book (yes, they are out there and they are not boring) until 8:50pm. Since she needs to get up at 6am, that still gives her 9 hours of sleep. Anonymous
My almost-9 year old also sometimes stays awake 1-2 hours past bedtime. Sometimes he is reading, sometimes he is playing with toys, in bed, with only a night light on. My older kid used to do this too. We don't usually have dessert, and we don't watch TV on school nights, and we usually have a calm bedtime story before bedtime. So, none of these strategies have worked for us. What we are doing now is not that great but it does work better than just putting him to bed and then waiting, waiting, waiting: we let him go to sleep in our bed. Sometimes my husband lies down with him. Most of the time he goes right to sleep. Then we walk him in to his room when we are ready to go to bed and he does not wake up.

The other thing you could try is some exercise in the late afternoon or after dinner. My older son told me when he was 9 that he couldn't sleep because of ''bad pictures'' in his head. I used to have to sit with him till he fell asleep. I should have just put him to sleep in our bed but I thought at the time it would set a bad precedent! Anyway, he is grown now and he is a total night owl, so I guess we were fighting against a nocturnal clock when he was younger. Good luck! another mom


I have a son who sounds a lot like your kiddo, and I was this kid way back when. My son has always been a difficult sleeper, but so am I so I think I was better prepared to handle this issue. What has worked for us is some of what you've already done. We allow him to read in bed with a reading light so he doesn't keep his younger brother awake. I snuggle with him for at least 10 minutes and during this time we talk about his day and settle ourselves. When he was younger we used to do a breathing exercise to calm and focus him, nothing fancy just deep breathing in and out. From my experience having a set ritual each night is helpful. One thing we've done that's worked as well is having him listen to music with headphones. Keeping the room as dark as possible is also good with a light he can control like an LED reading light so he can either read or use it as a night light. Sometimes I also put him in a warm bath before bed or encourage him to take a shower.

Try to create an atmosphere of calm, when bed time becomes anxiety producing there is no way to sleep. And be sure to explain to him that there is nothing wrong with him, some people just have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. I came to the conclusion years ago that I just need less sleep than other people, my son is the same way. Lately things have been better, he's asleep pretty consistently by 10pm, but these things go in cycles. It sounds like this lack of sleep is distressing to him so I would avoid having him lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, that was always the worst for me as a kid and exacerbated my anxiety about sleep. good luck


Hi Michael, How about trying some relaxation stuff. I have a CD on our iPod that seems to knock my son out. It's called Guided Meditation for Children narrated by Chitra Sukhu (you can find it on iTunes). There are a few versions but one will suffice. We have the Earth Elements one. There is a meditation on Fire, Water, Air, Ether and Earth. Perhaps that would help him relax. If I listen with my son at bedtime it knocks me out too! Also, have you talked to a naturopath about maybe giving him a dose of melatonin? LogicalMama
you mention he gets cookies and ice cream for desert. Have you considered the possibility of allergies or sensitivity to either diary, wheat flour or even the stimulating effect of sugar? If I were you I'd experiment with offering a piece of fruit instead or at least see what happens if you cut first the ice cream, then the cookies to see if there is any difference in his sleep. There's also the possibility his sleep problem is connect to pre-pubescent hormonal changes. Why not experiment with just letting him read himself to sleep. amma
I was a child and am a grown woman who has cycled in and out of insomnia--so I offer this from my own experience (and very clear memories of SO many nights like those your son is experiencing!)

1. Acknowledge what he's going through. It drove me nuts that my mom would dismiss the torment of this by saying ''just close your eyes and try!''--as if it were that simple!

2. Talk to him about it to see if he has any knowledge about it that could lead to solutions. Does he notice a difference in his thoughts and actions on the nights he can sleep vs. those he can't?

3. Meditation or other practice to help him at least rest his body if he can't rest his mind--which can also give him a positive sense that he can do SOMETHING in this situation, even if he can't sleep (guided meditation with earphones has been a blessing for me in this regard--I actually fall asleep in the middle about half the time)

4. Exercise: if I'm not challenging my physical body, my mental health suffers--directly. When I was a kid, I was way more prone to insomnia the months/years I was not paticipating in a challenging, daily sport (for some reason, martial arts and running were the best sports for me in terms of promoting sleep). Hope this helps!


I had trouble sleeping when I was younger and finally found relief by focusing on my breathing. Counting sheep didn't work, but meditative breathing did. A meditation class or wok on mindfulness might help him. Even if he feels silly going, being able to calm your mind is a lifesaving skill to have that I still use as an adult. karen
Melatonin has worked wonders for us with our now-13 year old, and I only wish we'd tried it sooner (we started about 3 years ago). We had nights similar to yours which usually involved one parent laying down with her for up to 2 hours, as she had anxiety as well. I think many kids take 5mg, but she does well with 2.5mg. If you're hesitant about giving your child a ''sleeping pill'' (I was), we called it a ''sleep vitamin'' at first, and I explained that it was a substance your body makes at night, but hers just didn't kick in early enough. got my evenings back!

5-year-old's insomnia

Oct 2006

Our daughter, who is 5 years old, has always had trouble sleeping. She goes to bed with no problem, usually after a routine of bath (on bath nights), brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, drinking water, books, and guitar from her dad if it's his turn. She goes to bed at the same time with her almost-3-yo brother, who sleeps in the same room but a different bed. After a full day, which can include preschool, playdates, dance class or the park, she still cannot manage to get to sleep. She might come out or yell a few times to say she can't go to sleep, but generally she doesn't bother us. If we put her to bed at 8, she won't sleep until 10, if we put her to bed at 9, she will not sleep until 11, and last night she did not fall asleep until after midnight. If we go out all day, say to a wedding in Davis like we did last weekend, and drive home at night, she won't fall asleep in the car. This girl just does not like to go to sleep, and never has, although once she does she's out like a log and we have to wake her every day to go to school. Sometimes I think it's her very active imagination. She has said before that she imagines things that bother her. She's also expressed frustration at not being able to sleep. Sometimes she's playing with toys in her bed. Our sleeping with her is not an option (I can't sleep next to her) and the times I have laid down with her, I always fall asleep before she does and it doesn't seem to help. Sometimes she says she wants to sleep with her brother, but he doesn't like it. I don't know if anyone else has an insomniatic young child, but I would appreciate hearing about others' experience with the same problem. Thanks


All three of my daughters have had insomnia at various times in their childhoods, the youngest most regularly and beginning at about age five. We are somewhat resigned to it because my mother, siblings and I all have it to some degree. What we have found works best (though nothing works all the time, be warned) is to have my daughter listen to a story tape as she goes to sleep; this is after her regular nighttime routine. We have about 10 or 12 story tapes that she rotates, that are 1/2 hour per side or even better, an hour on CD that doesn't have to be flipped. (The ''Classical Kids'' series, i.e. ''Beethoven Lives Upstairs,'' are the perfect lenght.) Listening to the words of the story helps her turn off the voice in her own head that's keeping her awake, and once she's listened to a story two or three times, the story itself won't keep her awake. My older daughters, for whom we used the same method, now both listen to the radio very low as they go to sleep.

Like I said, it doesn't always work. On the advice of my pediatrician, I have at times given my daughter Benadryl to help her sleep when she's gotten into a particularly bad pattern and is so tired that she can't seem to wind down. Good luck, and take comfort in the fact that when they're teenagers, they usually fall asleep in the first 15 seconds No Easy Answers


I have a 6 year old who is just as you describe your 5 year old. I am eager to hear what feedback you get because we are in the same situation. The only thing that seems to help her is to go to sleep in our bed with me holding her. It still takes her 20-30 minutes, but at least she is going to sleep at 9:30ish instead of 10:30 or 11:00! The problem with this is that I inevitably get tired and fall asleep, leaving no me time at night. It is frustrating because my daughter is also moody and needs her sleep so I feel obligated to help her get to sleep as early as I can. I think she just cant relax on her own. Her docter even suggested that we give her benadryl, but this just wired her up even more. Let 's hope for some ideas.
Here are some ideas, in no particular order, about what has helped us with our insomnia.

1. Wake your child up at the same time every morning (even on weekends) as much as possible and especially during the insomnia phases.

2. Listen to kids relaxation CDs as part of going to bed. A Boy and a Turtle is good and there are some other CDs by the same author.

3. Ask an MD who treats kids with ADHD about melatonin. You have to make sure you get a good brand or it won't work. We give our daughter 1 mg. sublingual.

4. Sounds like you have a lot of activity and stimulation going on. You might want to try having more downtime (less stimulation) during the day and leaving your daughter alone in her room with the lights on to unwind in the way she wants to for a while before bedtime. So no input or stimulation from you, just being on her own. She might seek you out and you can tell her to go wait for you. Waiting is boring and she'll be able to process her day, get bored and wind down.

5. Progressive relaxation techniques for kids. There are books that teach kids how to make different muscle groups hard and then soft, also balloon breathing. A backrub or foot massage.

6. Lots of exercise during the day, hikes uphill, running outside, etc. A dance class may be pretty stimulating and actually not provide a lot of aerobic exercise.

7. Keep a sleep diary of what you did during the day, at bedtime, time lights out, time fell asleep, time woke up. You might discover some patterns we have insomnia too...


-- Have you tried really wearing her out physically? Lots and lots of running around? My son sleeps easiest and best when he is really physically exhausted. His toughest nights are when he has had lots of mental stimulation but not run around as much. Anon

4 year-old resisting bedtime

June 2005

Our 4 year old hates to go to bed unless she is ultra tired. We have a consistent routine and bedtime but getting the whole process started is the biggest problem. She just knows she is missing something (What? cleaning up and falling asleep on the sofa - whoopee!) and does not want to go to bed. She is transitioning out of naps and on nap days she is more open to the routine but then plays the hopping up out of bed game. On non-nap days she goes from fine and resisting bed to crazy- manic-tired in the blink of an eye which leads to tantrums. When she finally calms down she is asleep within 5 minutes. I have tried games to get her into bed & we have a ''star chart'' to reward her on sucessful bedtime nights. Tonight I even resorted back to driving her around like an infant. It didn't work. Any other suggestions? Please! Tired of Bedtime


We had a similar situation with our 4-year-old. She didn't so much throw a tantrum as she stalled going to bed by having about 100 excuses (needs water, looking for teddy bear, etc.). Anyway, we got a kitchen timer and let her know how much time she had before bedtime. When the timer went off, it was time for bed. I had my doubts about this method but it actually worked ! No fussing after that. You might want to give it a try. R.K.

5-year-old can't fall asleep until 10:00pm!

March 2002

My sister's daughter, who just turned five, is not falling asleep at night until 10:00 pm! She is up at 7:30 most mornings, has a busy day at preschool, and takes about a 45 minute nap most days. I have tried to skip the nap, but that usually results in her being very cranky and demanding at about 4:00 pm.. She can and has for months at a time gone to bed at 8:30 pm, which works well for all of us. Right now she says she can't fall asleep, which is difficult for me because I have anemia in the winter. So getting her into bed at a reasonable time is important to me, since I need to get to bed too! Thanks for all your good thoughts! Patricia


First of all, my sympathies. Everything is so much harder when there has been little sleep. In terms of the amount of hours of sleep your niece is getting, it sounds about normal. Sometimes my son, who is just three, can't or doesn't fall asleep until 9 or 10 pm but the deal is always the same: he's in bed between 7:30 and 8 and then he can play in his bed (is not allowed to get out of bed) or read, listen to books on tape etc. We've had this routine always an he just falls asleep when he is ready. This may be hard for you to do if it's new but it may well be worth it. She may enjoy a new routine??? Good luck!
We had this problem with our son when he was about four. He would take a two hour nap starting around 4 pm (!!), he would wake just before I got home from work at 6 and then stay up until 10:30 or 11. First, we had his pediatrician tell him at his 4 year well child checkup that he was a big boy and didn't need naps anymore (this was amazingly helpful!). Then, we started to allow our son to watch TV for an hour in the afternoon (at the time Sesame Street was on at 4:30-5:30, so this was perfect). We would sit and watch the show together, talk about what was happening, eat a snack and cuddle on the couch. He got the down time he needed (and so did I or his sitter), but it engaged him enough to keep him from falling asleep. Without the nap, he was asleep by 9pm. Good luck!
My three year old has never been a sleeper. He was born at 10:00 PM and did not go to sleep until 8:00 AM the next morning....nothing has changed. He usually does not fall asleep until 10:30 - 11:30 PM and wakes at about 7:00. Our routine is to put him in his bed at about 9:30 and just let him stay awake in bed. He can have his books, toys, etc., as long as he stays in bed. We do not tell him that he has to go to sleep, but rather he must stay in bed. He does play, but eventually falls asleep. This was a recommendation from his doctor because I too am very exhausted. It seems to have made things a little easier.
I think you have already hit the nail on the head...your sister's daughter is at that age where the nap has to go, otherwise the bedtime will be 10 or 11 o' clock each night. It happened with our oldest at four years of age, but this transitional age does vary from child to child. We finally decided we had to put up with the cranky late afternoon/early evening period for the sake of enforcing a regular, sane bedtime for everyone. Be comforted in that while it's not the easiest, you'll have much easier bedtimes and perhaps at 4pm or so she can spend some quiet time with a caregiver, books, or coloring so her body gets some rest if not actual sleep. For our daughter, even if we gave her a 15 minute catnap it wreaked havoc with the bedtime when she was at this stage. While our daughter still occasionally gets tired at dinnertime or late afternoon, six months after we've eliminated her naps, those periods are shorter and less frequent than before. Our bedtimes are now stable at 8pm - 8:30 pm on the dot. Good luck!
Does your niece read yet? If she does, try putting her to bed earlier with a book. My daughter will soon be nine, but ever since she could read on her own really well (around five) I never had a problem with her going to bed. I'd tuck her in with a book (after she no longer wanted me to read to her preferring to do it herself) and within 15 minutes I'd come back and she'd be asleep with the open book over her face. Worked like a charm. Still does.
As far as I know kids need 10 hours of sleep at that age in a 24 hour period. Mine sleeps from 8pm to 6am, when we need to get up for work. Definitely no naps. We let her stay up late on Christmas Eve when we do the gift exchange - that means an afternoon nap of 1.5 hour and she stays up easily until 11pm in the best of mood/energy. I suggest you determine when bedtime should be, count 10 hours forward and set the alarm for the new earlier wake-up time. The 45 min nap must go. Transition slowly over several days in 30 minute intervals.

8-year-old can't do early bedtime

Oct 1999

My 8 yr old son has a really hard time falling asleep at night. Partly I think that his body would like to be on a later schedule, but since he has to wake up at 7, he also has to fall asleep by 9 or so otherwise he's sleepy and irritable the next day. He will lie in bed with the lights out for up to an hour, just keeping himself awake with his own busy brain. It helps when we lie down with him, but that's not a good long-term solution! And no, he never has caffeine, and he finishes soccer by 6:30 (I know exercise right before bed is a no-no). I'm thinking some kind of meditation or relaxation exercise might help. Any ideas? Thanks!


As a child I had problems going to sleep at night. My mind just kept working. Come to think about it, I have had this problem most of my life until I became a father and now I am so exhausted at night that I easily fall asleep. In fact I have fallen asleep while playing with my children, if I am in a horizontal position! What I did as a child and occasionally with my 7 year old, is to read with a flashlight. There is nothing like reading that helps those eyelids start to close.
I always had a hard time falling asleep too (until I had my son). What always worked for me was what my mom called "the relaxing exercise." My mom would say it to me when I was younger, but as I got older, I would say it to myself in my head. The way it works is, while your son is laying in bed, in the dark, in a comfortable position, say "Feel your feet, feel how heavy and tired your feet feel. Now feel your ankles, etc." Work your way up the body, front and back, out to each arm and hand and up the neck and head. You say it slowly in a nice relaxing voice. I've used this on my husband a couple of times and he is always asleep before I get to his torso..... Good luck!
My 8 yr old son has a really hard time falling asleep at night. Partly I think that his body would like to be on a later schedule, but since he has to wake up at 7, he also has to fall asleep by 9 or so otherwise he's sleepy and irritable the next day. He will lie in bed with the lights out for up to an hour, just keeping himself awake with his own busy brain.
I would like to share something that worked like a miracle in helping me get to sleep. I just wish I'd figured it out twenty years ago.

I have had trouble falling asleep all my life. As a teenager it used to take me over an hour to fall asleep every night. My brain just kept going, thinking about this and that. Especially if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night, I would often spend a couple of hours lying awake thinking or worrying. As an adult, I tried everything: sleeping pills (didn't work and made me groggy), herbal remedies (didn't work), relaxation techniques (worked only sometimes). Total exhaustion would sometimes help me get to sleep more quickly in the evening, but then I would wake up around 2 a.m. and start the cycle of lying awake again.

Most recently, when I became pregnant, it was horrible. I was waking up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night 4 or 5 times, and losing 3 or more hours of sleep a night.

Then, my husband started reading me to sleep in the evenings and it worked like a charm. You have to pick the right type of book: one that doesn't have too gripping a story. We found history books or other nonfiction worked great.

However, this didn't help when I woke up in the middle of the night. So we started taping him reading. We made about six 45-minute-long cassettes. Now, whenever I wake up and need to go back to sleep, I just pop one of those cassettes in the player, and I am *always* asleep before the end of the tape.

The story requires just enough attention that my brain doesn't keep spinning away on its own thoughts.

To me it seems like a miracle! I was so exhausted from lack of sleep during the first part of the pregnancy, and now I get a full night's sleep every night! Hope this helps someone else.


Other, more lyrical books to read adults to sleep with are Ivan Doig's autbiographical-historical fiction. This house of sky, his first, is his best. But they are all wonderful. And they work like a charm.
Who thinks, can't sleep! You need to make yourself stop thinking. Of course, you can try eloborate things to eventually stop yourself from thinking through external stimulation (music, being read to, exhaustion from baby care) or you can try the direct route, which has always worked for me, since I was a teenager. Almost every night I fall asleep within 5 minutes, unless I purposefully allow myself to think - then I'm in for an hour or longer tossing and turning. My strategy is to immediately catch myself when the first word forms in my mind or cut off the first sentence. "No words" I remind myself in my mind and don't allow my brain to go further. Instead, I focus on the snuggly/cocooning feeling I get from my pillow and when another word or thought comes back up I stop it right in the track with the same reply. After five or more attempts of this your mind and body gets so tired of this, you fall asleep out of boredom and lack of stimulation. It's all about not permitting yourself to think. Just this little bit of consistant discipline/control over yourself will do the trick. Of course, you make it much easier on yourself if you only go to bed when you're tired, if you make the time to think about and solve your issues during wake hours and if you don't go to bed with the emotional charge of the 10pm news that you haven't had a chance to digest. Furthermore, it helps if you don't go to bed following a big meal and if you use your bed for sleeping only habit forming) and not reading, talking or writing. Good sleep is as important and should be treated with the same respect/have the same value as our other basic needs.
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