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What You Must Know About Sleep Problems in Young Children

July 19, 2020, Author: Tamra Cater

Up to approximately 50% of toddlers and preschoolers may suffer from poor sleep. Parents may assume that their child’s sleeping pattern is normal. And when parents do see a doctor for a potential sleep issue, often the problem has become severe. Unfortunately, parents often leave the doctor’s office with no answers or tools, as some pediatricians are not knowledgable on solving common sleep problems in young children. Poor sleep at this age can lead to mood disorders, ADHD, and problems with learning later on. Thus, early identification of problems is important!

So how do you handle these issues so these long term consequences are prevented? I had the opportunity to interview Victoria Tenenbaum to learn more about how to solve sleep problems in young children. Her credentials and website (if you need help, feel free to contact her!) are at the end of this post.

Normal Patterns of Sleep in Young Children

Before we consider sleep issues, we need to consider normal sleep patterns are in children.

Here’s a graphic representation of some of the typical sleep patterns you will see in babies up to preschoolers:

what you must know about sleep in young children

Common Sleep Problems in Young Children

1. Inability to regulate themselves

Some children have a hard time regulating themselves, so they can get to sleep. For example, there may be inconsistent or late nap times, so a child may have trouble falling asleep at night at a consistent time. Also, there may not be any consistent bedtime routine to help children start to relax and become sleepy at night. If you need ideas for this, check out this site on a good bedtime routine: Best Bedtime Routine for Toddler. 

Children need to learn to develop an expectation that it is time to get ready for bed, so therefore, it’s time to time to start winding down. As adults, we do the same thing. We may sit and relax by reading a book or taking a warm bath.

Another aspect of this problem is that the child may not be complying with the parent’s request to go to bed.

2.Not Falling Asleep and Frequent nighttime waking (Childhood insomnia)

Behavioral insomnia is a learned inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. In one type of childhood insomnia, children learn to fall asleep under certain conditions. For example, they may be rocked asleep or they can’t fall asleep unless someone rubs their back. Another type of behavioral insomnia is when parents don’t set limits. An example would be letting the child in the parent’s bed when the child refuses to sleep in their bed or a child consistently delays sleep by making multiple requests for something (My child has been guilty of this, as she asks for a drink, but it’s always a sip, or she has to go pick out another stuffed animal, even though she has multiple stuffed animals on her bed already). Children tend to show both types of insomnia, in that they have to have some condition to fall asleep and parents don’t set limits.

3.Other Medical Conditions to Consider

There are sleep-related breathing disorders, one example being obstructive sleep apnea. These disorders are on a spectrum in that there’s habitual snoring at it’s least severe form and then obstructive sleep apnea as the most severe form. Some potential risk factors for sleep-related breathing disorders include obesity, chronic sinus problems, and wheezing.

There are other disorders such as restless leg syndrome or rhythmic leg disorder. In rhythmic leg disorder, the child will show repetitive and stereotyped motor behaviors that involve large muscle groups.

*There are more sleep disorders to consider, but these are just some of the common ones.

Treatment and Intervention of Sleep Disorders in Young Children

According to Victoria Tenebaum, this is her process for when she sees a client with a sleep disorder:

During the initial session, I’ll make an assessment – me learning about the current situation and your values as parents. Together we will work on plan design. The plan is an intervention that will determine which changes parents must implement to observe a difference in a child’s sleep patterns. We develop the plan together so parents feel comfortable with every decision we will make. The last step is training. I’m guiding the parents on how to implement all the behavioral procedures correctly. After we seal the plan, we are in touch daily, and I monitor the progress through data collection. Behavior is dynamic, so is our process. If we meet challenges, we will reassess, adjust the program, and make refinements.
Before you seek help from a professional, however, there are some tips you can try at home.

Tips to Help Your Young Child Sleep Better

1. Establish a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine. 
In our case, we would start with a relaxing bath. Then, I’d help my daughter put on pajamas. Then we’d relax even more by laying in bed reading a story together. Also, consider not using tv or other electronics at bedtime because the blue light that comes from these devices can impede sleep. In establishing this consistent routine, it will prepare your child for rest and sleep.
2. Follow through with your routine. 
If you didn’t have a routine before, there may be resistance from your child. It’s important to still push through and be consistent. If your child is accustomed to your presence, you can gradually wean your child from your presence. In doing so, this will help your child learn to soothe themselves. So, if your child can’t fall asleep without you in the room, wait a few minutes before going in. Then, in the following days, wait even longer. Then, your child will eventually learn to soothe themselves and fall asleep on their own.
3. Build other habits that support good nighttime sleep
One thing that has helped my daughter sleep much better is to ensure that she is active during the day. For example, we take her to the park and let her play or go to the zoo. This helps immensely. Also, consider your child’s nap schedule. Are they sleeping too long during the day? Are they taking naps too close to bedtime?
Another thing to consider is to be careful about using your child’s bedroom as a place to send them for time out. Your child should be associating the bedroom with rest and sleep, not punishment.

Final Thoughts on Sleep Problems in Young Children

If you think there’s an issue with your child’s sleep, don’t hesitate to seek help! I’ve met Victoria, and she seems very sweet and compassionate, and very willing to help you with whatever you need! And sometimes, the sleep problem may just work itself out, as it did with us. My daughter starting sleeping through the night all of a sudden, but I did wish that it happened a lot sooner than it did!

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Carter, K.,  Hathaway,  N. E., & Lettieri, C. F. (2014). Common sleep disorders in children. Retrieved from

Child insomnia and sleep problems. Retrieved from

Interviewee Bio:

Victoria Tenenbaum is a board-certified Behavior Analyst who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. 

She draws upon established scientific research and extensive experience to address children’s sleep and behavior problems. Proud member of Behavioral Sleep Medicine Society.




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