How to Get Your Child to Go to Bed

son who can't sleep waking up sleeping mom

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The problem of a child fighting sleep or not going to bed isn’t limited to the baby and toddler years. Refusing to go to bed or having trouble falling asleep can be an all-too-common problem for school-age children as well. It’s important to address these issues as soon as possible. ​

Getting enough sleep and being well-rested is particularly crucial for school-age kids. Without enough sleep, they 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 Kid Won’t Go to Sleep

Common reasons your child might not go to sleep include:

  • A power struggle
  • Bedroom set-up
  • Being overtired
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Excessive electronics usage
  • Fear of the dark
  • Feeling left out
  • Hunger
  • Inconsistent bedtime
  • Lack of bedtime routine
  • Lack of transition
  • Overstimulation

Set a Bedtime

Try to keep bedtime consistent, even on the weekends and during the summer. It can be hard to get kids to bed by 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. when the sun doesn’t begin to set until after 8:30 p.m., but it’s a good idea to prevent bedtime from sliding toward 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., only to have kids adjust to a new sleep schedule once school starts.

Plus, sleep habits take time to form but are easy to disrupt. However, once established, a regular sleep schedule will prompt your child to feel tired and drift off easier at the appropriate time. So it's worth the effort to stick to a consistent bedtime as much as possible.

Understand Your Child's Sleep Needs

As with adults, individual children need different amounts of sleep. Some may do just fine on eight to nine hours of sleep a night while other kids need at least 11 or more to feel rested. Also, note that while many younger kids are hardwired to wake up and go to bed early, this cycle shifts for tweens and teens, whose body clocks tend to prefer staying up later and sleeping in.

Aim to honor their natural sleep needs as much as possible—while working around their school and other activity schedules. Each kid is different, so parents should pay attention to their child’s needs and adjust their routine and timing accordingly.

General Sleep Needs for Kids

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, typical sleep needs for kids, by age, are:

  • 0 to 3 months: 14 to 19 hours (including naps)
  • 4 to 12 months: 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • 1 to 2 years : 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours
  • 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours

Create a Bedtime Routine

Sometimes kids have trouble falling asleep because there is not enough of a transition between activity and bedtime. This is where sleep routines come in. You’re likely to have more success getting your child to sleep if you make sure they have some quiet downtime before they go to bed. Often a bath and story time are great ways to get your child settled.

Having a regular bedtime routine can promote healthy sleep. Customize your child's bedtime routine to suit your child and your family. But in general:

  • Adjust the routine as your child ages: What works for a baby (rocking and nursing or being fed a bottle) may not work for a toddler (singing a song and rubbing their back). Likewise, elementary-age kids may want to switch off reading a chapter book with you or talk about the day's events while looking at the stars from their bedroom window.
  • Be consistent: While some flexibility may be warranted, the more consistent you are, the more likely your child is to follow the routine and go to sleep at its conclusion. If your child knows you'll sing extra songs each time they ask, that you'll get them another glass of water or a snack, or eventually let them crawl in bed with you, they are more likely to keep asking.
  • Choose elements that calm and resonate with your child. In addition to the basics of a bath, brushing teeth, and putting on pajamas, you might sing, read, tell a story, cuddle, draw, quietly play with stuffed animals or other toys, or put on a shadow puppet show.
  • Connect with your child. Sometimes, kids keep getting back out of bed because they want more time with their parents. Spending a few extra minutes together at bedtime can provide a connection boost that will help your child feel secure, loved, and more comfortable sleeping on their own.
  • Include simple, short steps. Aim for the routine to feel like a rhythm or pattern that cues your child that it's time to sleep. Follow the same set of components in the same order each night.

Turn off the TV and any other electronics at least an hour before bed, as electronics usage cues the brain to stay up. If your child absolutely insists that they are not tired, have them read quietly in their room (or read one or two short chapters to them—even older kids who read well enjoy listening to stories) or listen to soothing music.

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 videos or talking, your child may feel left out and not want to go to bed. Instead, dim the lights and have the whole family put on pajamas when your grade-schooler does, putting the entire house into a relaxed mode as bedtime nears. If your child still has the wiggles, try a moonlight walk around the block.

Manage Stress

Consider how stress might be impacting your child. Kids may be worried about something at school, like homework, tests, making friends, or even bullies. They may be anxious about a change in their lives, such as a new school or a parent who is working longer hours. A movie or a book that frightened them or caused anxious thoughts—whether or not it was scary—could also interfere with sleep.

Anxiety and stress can interfere with kids’ sleep, just as it can prevent grownups from getting a good night’s rest. Consult their doctor and/or a counselor to get help easing your child's worries and boosting their coping strategies.

Be Careful About Napping

Excessive napping can interfere with regular bedtimes and nighttime sleep quality. If your child is taking a nap late in the afternoon and then doesn't seem tired at bedtime, the nap may be the problem. Note, though, that once your child seems tired, they may actually be overtired—and you actually want to put your child to bed before they get overly sleepy.

You can try moving the nap earlier, shortening it, or skipping it altogether. If your child seems on the cusp of outgrowing the nap, try doing schoolwork earlier and serving an early dinner so that you can try an earlier bedtime. On weekends or in the summer, make sure your child is active and has a busy day so that they are tired by bedtime.

Make Sure Your Child Isn’t Overtired

Between homework, play dates, and after-school activities, school-age children can be up way too late. As odd as it sounds, overtired kids can have a harder time falling asleep than alert ones. Being overtired can actually lead to hyperactivity in many kids, which can make it even more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime.

If your kids are regularly up past their bedtime working on homework, find ways to manage other after-school activities to make more time for homework, or talk to the teachers about reducing their workload. You can also try to schedule homework for right after school so that kids finish schoolwork before they have an extracurricular activity.​

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, irritable, and moody.

Involve Your Child

To foster buy-in from your child, stick to the routine but offer flexibility where you can. School-age kids are constantly flexing their newfound independence muscles, and bedtime can be one of the areas over which they want to exercise control.

So, aim to give choices between specific things as much as possible, such as saying “Would you like the green pajamas or the striped ones?” or “Would you like a bubble bath or a bath without bubbles?”. But make bedtime a firm and non-negotiable rule. You can also give them choices about which book you read or which color sheets to put on their bed.

Make the Bedroom Comfortable

Set up your child's bedroom for sleep success. Make their bedroom as cozy, friendly, and appealing to them as possible. If they love trucks or dogs or fairies, get them a special poster, stuffed animal, or blanket (or make it yourself) to match this passion—and keep it in their room. Also, keep the room tidy, uncluttered, a comfortable (not too hot, not too cold) temperature, and dark, so that it's conducive to sleep.

Get the TV and computer out of the bedroom, which can interfere with sleep. If your child doesn’t like the dark, pick out a nightlight, light machine, and/or glow-in-the-dark ceiling stickers together. White noise machines and security items like special blankets and stuffed animals can help make your child's room and bed feel more welcoming and safe.

Talking up their "big kid" bed can encourage kids to actually sleeping on their own as well. Try using another area, such as the kitchen table, as a homework workspace so that the bedroom is only for relaxing and sleeping.

Have a Wake-Up Time

In addition to having a consistent bedtime, it is just as important to have a consistent wake-up time to help establish your child's sleep rhythm. The best wake-up time will depend on your family's needs, depending on your school, work, and other family commitments like having a dog to walk. It doesn't really matter exactly what time you pick, so long as it allows your child enough time to get in their ideal hours of sleep and that it works for your family's schedule.

Creating a wake-up routine can also be helpful. This may include a morning snuggle or story, a special song, and/or simply getting your child up, dressed, teeth brushed, fed, and ready for their day.

Be Consistent

Consistency is key when establishing healthy sleep habits. If your child gets up for that third drink of water and fourth trip to the bathroom, you may be tempted to let them stay up or to let them sleep in your bed. You may feel guilty about making your child go to bed when they haven’t had a lot of time with you after you’ve come home from work. But if your child doesn't learn how to be restful and fall asleep in their room, you will only prolong sleep problems.

Have them get back into bed when all their needs are met and tell them that they must stay there. Turn on the night light, leave the door open a crack, and let your child know that you will check on them every few minutes, but that they must stay in bed. Be gentle, soothing, and calm, but be firm.

A Word From Verywell

Comparing your child to siblings or to other kids their age, or expecting them to go to bed promptly without problems, will only lead to frustration—for both of you. Instead, work as a team to figure out how you can fine-tune your child's daytime and nighttime routines to help them sleep soundly at night.

Adjust bedtimes and wake-up times gradually to find what works for your child. Be patient. Eventually, you will find a schedule and routine that works for your child and your family. But if all else fails, and you lie down with your child until they fall asleep or put them on a little bed in your room until they're ready to fall asleep solo, it's not the end of the world. Going to bed easily—and on their own—will happen eventually, it just may take some kids longer to get there.

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