If your child isn't sleeping well

A child who does not sleep well can affect the whole family. Parents can be left exhausted, unable to think clearly and struggling to cope with their daily activities. The child can be left feeling over tired or over-active, both signs of lack of sleep.

Brothers and sisters are also affected, feeling tired at school, and sometimes resentful towards the sibling disturbing their sleep. If this continues over a long period of time, it can have an adverse effect on the health and wellbeing of all members of the family.

For you and your partner, sleep may become a kind of currency for your day-to-day living, that you need to make everything else in your life work and click together. Without sleep, it’s harder to manage our emotions, to be logical, to complete daily tasks, and to be loving to each other. There’s not much energy leftover for you as a couple.

How you can help your relationship:

Whatever the cause of your child’s sleep difficulties, it’s wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t feel stressed and irritable when you’ve both been losing sleep [1].

Sleep deprivation can also make you worse at managing your own emotions. This is partly due to being more easily irritated - you’re more likely to quick-fire an emotion before you’ve allowed yourself the space to think through your reaction. If you’re in this situation, it can be helpful to:

  • Recognize when you’re on a hair-trigger. Allow yourselves the space to respond to each other in a slower manner. By being aware and mindful of your tendency to fire from the hip, you can encourage one another to take more time, and even give yourselves a few seconds delay – it could help stop you saying something you regret.

  • Put difficult conversations on hold. At times, it may be worth saying to your partner “I’m not in the right place to have this conversation, can we talk about this later?”, or “I need to not talk about this right now, can we just not?” Stopping a conversation you just can’t manage, in a respectful way, is sometimes the right thing to do. Dealing with difficult issues often comes down to choosing the right moments.

  • Be sensitive to your partner. If tiredness is taking its toll on your partner and you can see they’re over tired and stressed, sometimes it’s not wise to launch a conversation, even if you’ve got an issue that you really want to discuss.

  • Play the long game. The reason these actions are so worthwhile is because your child’s sleeping difficulties may be an ongoing issue. And, as with any ongoing issue, the small things you say and do will rack up over time. So play the long game; if you both make sure that you use kind words, assure each other that there are solutions, remind them that you’ll make it through together as a family, bring them tea, offer them things, and try to show each other that you’re considering them.


By staying positive and being loving in small ways, you’d be surprised how much difference this can make over time. Be prepared that you may not be rewarded for this in the short-term – sleep deprivation can cause us to miss the kind deeds that are happening right in front of us – but it will help in the long term.

How you can help your child 

86% of children with additional needs have issues with sleep, so if you’re experiencing difficulties, you’re not alone.

There can be various reasons for this. It is important to seek medical advice to make sure there is not a medical cause for your child’s problem sleeping. There are also many different strategies and approaches to helping children sleep. We recommend that you always consult a GP or relevant health practitioner before attempting to change a child’s sleeping habits. And it may be worth seeking help from a sleep specialist, ideally one that understands sleep disorders in relation to your child’s condition.

Regardless of what techniques you are advised on, or whatever techniques you’re currently trying, remember that improvements in a child’s sleep may take some time. Research suggests that after changes are made, improvements in a child’s sleep often occur gradually, and for some parents their child’s sleep problems become more challenging before improvements are reported [2].

If you’re trying new things, (for example, a new bedtime routine, withdrawal of attention during the night), you may also find that there is also an initial resistance from your child. In other words, it can be darkest right before the dawn, and parents may need to endure a short-term worsening of the problem [3].

Whatever your situation, you can read more about techniques, resources and organisations that can help you and your child sleep in Contact's guide for parents, Helping your child sleep available free to parents who contact their freephone helpline on 0808 808 3555, helpline@contact.org.uk

References
 

[1] Tietze et al., 2014

[2] Stuttard et al, 2015 

[3] Beresford et al., 2012

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