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Kids Don’t “Fight” Sleep: What’s Really Happening When Kids Resist Bedtime

By Kate Baltrotsky

We’ve all experienced kids “fighting” sleep—and boy, is it ever annoying! But are they really fighting it, or is something else going on?

My oldest daughter could have been categorized as one who “fights sleep.” From the day she was born, those beady little eyes would pop open and stay open for way longer than I thought was humanly (or newbornly) possible. Even now, when she’s 8, she still wants to know what’s going on at every moment of the day. She would rather walk around with her eyes hanging out of her head than admit she’s tired. Aren’t a lot of kids this way? But when she gets like that, I know there’s something going on.

My mother will tell you that I was the biggest sleep fighter of all—and I remember it. I remember lying down on my cot in preschool and kindergarten and being so tired, but not being relaxed enough to fall asleep. It used to get me really upset! As a teenager, it would sometimes take me up to two hours to fall asleep. Yet when I was 19 I started daily meditation, and I haven’t had a major problem with sleep since. My kids now have a really hard time going to sleep when they have pent-up emotions. Usually, after a big cry or a big rage, they have a much deeper and more peaceful sleep.

There are a few things that a child needs to easily drift off to sleep. Sometimes, our modern life does not lend itself to good sleeping. When we try to make our kids independent and overstimulate them, their sleep can suffer. Children might not be able to sleep because of diet, screens, imbalances, illness, and more. The list below is just a start, but it includes some of the biggest and most often overlooked reasons why a child resists sleep.

Kids need to be tired.

This sounds stupid, but it’s important—and this is where sleep schedules don’t always work. If you’re trying to put a kid to sleep who isn’t even tired, you can just about forget about it. Can you go to sleep if you’re not tired? No. And neither can babies. Kids need enough exercise to make them tired, too. Even babies need a certain amount of exercise, in the form of wiggling, rolling, climbing, and crawling, in order to get tired. If you follow Ayurveda, there’s this energy called tamas—and without it, you literally cannot fall asleep.

Kids need to feel safe.

If your child is scared of the dark or being alone in a room, it can prevent her from falling asleep. If she knows that you’re going to leave the room, it’s going to make it harder for her to fall asleep. There are lots of things to try to give kids a safe space to sleep in, but some things to avoid are letting them cry it out, Ferberizing them, and banishing kids to their rooms when they’re overtired. Studies have proven that when a child’s cries are ignored, there can be long-term problems.

Kids need to feel connected.

A child who feels connected to his carer will fall asleep much more easily. Kids sometimes get really silly and playful before naps or bedtimes. Often we just end up getting annoyed or trying to “work them down.” We’re afraid that if we get silly at this time with them, they will get more worked up! But the opposite is true. Playfulness before bedtime (even if it’s rough-and-tumble) can be such a great outlet of energy, and also for laughter and connection. Sometimes kids cry when you finally call quits on the playing, but the crying is also a good thing…which leads us to the next point.

The child needs to release pent-up emotions.

This is probably the biggest reason why kids seem to “fight” sleep. Think about it: Can you fall asleep if your mind is racing, if you’re upset about something, or if you’re overstimulated? No—and it’s the same for a child. There are a lot of ways to make sure that a child has released his emotions. One of the ways is to allow the emotions to come out through the day, in the form of crying and raging when they get upset and frustrated. If your child hasn’t had the chance to release these emotions, he may find it hard to fall asleep. One thing you can do, especially with babies, is to simply hold them in your arms, look them in the eyes, and “listen” without interrupting by feeding or rocking or patting them. They will most likely cry. And, after they cry, and if they’re tired, they will almost certainly drift off to sleep.

If you want to learn more about how crying and emotions are linked to better sleep, I highly recommend reading Althea Solter’s book Tears and Tantrums. Sleep is a natural phenomenon and it should happen easily, without any tricks or training.