How I Helped My Child Overcome Sleep Anxiety

By Erica Garza ·

When I think about my child’s first six months of life, it’s difficult not to think about my own sleepiness, too. Though my husband and I were initially fond of sharing our bed with our first child, we didn’t anticipate how little sleep we’d all get during that time, and how important it would become to establish a solid nighttime routine and sleep schedule, especially in children with sleep anxiety.

Being a first-time parent, I thought babies slept when they wanted to sleep and where they wanted to sleep; my input didn’t matter. But by six months, I knew something had to change. My child still couldn't fall asleep unless we rocked her, she continued to wake up around every three hours at night, her naps were inconsistent, and she wouldn’t dare sleep in her own. It was obvious we were dealing with child sleep anxiety and depending too heavily on sleep crutches. We were in desperate need of a plan.

What Is Child Sleep Anxiety?

Children who struggle to get to sleep and/or stay asleep all night often struggle with sleep anxiety. Whether your child has anxiety or hyperactivity issues, this type of anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors. For smaller children, sleep anxiety often coincides with separation anxiety. When I left my daughter in the care of anyone other than my husband for too long, she’d start to worry if I was ever coming back. At night, if I wasn’t nearby to comfort her, the anxiety would bubble up again. Sometimes anxiety is caused by the child’s worries, including the worry of not being able to fall asleep on their own. My child became so dependent on being fed to sleep and rocked a particular way, that when she woke up on her own a few hours later, she did not know how to fall back asleep without those things. These are sleep crutches.

How to Get a Child to Sleep in Their Own Bed

There are no rules for when a child is too old to sleep with their parents, but if you feel like it’s time to transition your child to their own bed, then the time is right for you. Whether you choose to continue to share a room or whether you’re interested in sleep training methods, there are some lifestyle changes you can start making today to support your efforts. Here are the action steps that worked for us:

1. Implement a sleep schedule as well as a feeding schedule

Children crave routines and repetition. They love knowing what to expect. When we started making the transition to her own bed, we made sure our daughter knew what was coming. We fed her at the same times every day and put her down for her daily naps and nighttime sleep at the same appointed times. We prepared ourselves for some protest at the beginning, but my daughter quickly came to accept and anticipate her schedule.

2. Practice a calming, quiet nighttime routine

After dinner, we practiced a routine that helped wind our daughter down. She had a candlelit bubble bath and we blew out the candle together like a ritual she came to love. Then I dressed her in pajamas and we read a story together in a semi-dark room. By the time we’d lie her down in the bed, she was ready to drift off.

3. Leave before they fall asleep

Once you set your child down in their bed, be sure to leave before they fall asleep. This will help them realize quickly that it is possible to fall asleep without your presence should they wake up in the middle of the night without you there.

4. No screens before bed

Too much screen time can prevent children from developing language, focus and impulse control. It can also stimulate them so much that it impairs sleep. Limit screen time throughout the day and before bed to achieve better sleep.

5. Use a sound machine

Sometimes my child would fall asleep quickly, only to be awakened an hour or so later by some car horn or barking dog. A white noise machine can help mask any unexpected sounds that might rouse your child too early.

My child now takes a two-hour nap daily and sleeps twelve hours every night. Of course, there are the odd days when illness, travel, or some growing pain interrupts her schedule, but it rarely takes more than a few days to get us back on track. For the most part, she’s a champion sleeper. And, I’m happy to report, so are we.

Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a Master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.