How to help kids sleep better during the COVID-19 pandemic

Kids sleeping in bed

As we work together to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, normal routines connected to school, activities, play dates and sports are all on hold. And when children’s schedules are disrupted, optimizing sleep is especially challenging.

Most children thrive on structure because the predictability of routine offers a sense of control. A lack of predictability can feel unsettling for children and increase risk for anxiety and worry. And while parents are doing their best to describe the pandemic in “kid-friendly” terms, this topic is a lot for children to digest. Without their usual coping strategies accessible (e.g., sports, friends, hobbies, etc.) the impact of anxiety on children can be challenging. Anxiety is not only problematic for daytime well-being, but can also increase problems with sleep.

When sleep is insufficient, academic functioning is impacted. While adults suffering from sleep loss have low energy, children are often hyperactive. This coupled, with attention and concentration problems makes it challenging to get through academic tasks. As well, sleep deprived children can be more irritable and have lower frustration tolerance. This means, they might argue with their parents who are struggling with being their kids’ new teachers. Parent-child conflict and problems with mood and focus can wreak havoc on academic functioning while children try to learn from home during the pandemic.

A good night’s sleep can improve your child’s mood, behavior and focus.

Here are some tips for helping your children get the rest they need while you shelter in place:

Create a school schedule that the family takes seriously.

Have a family discussion about the schedule and get some level of input and buy-in from your kids so they are more likely to commit to it (e.g., let them pick two break times and lunchtime).

Set a consistent bedtime and waketime for the family on weekdays and on weekends

Although it’s tempting to let the kids stay up later and comfort them with couch cuddles in the late evening, resist this temptation. Inconsistent sleep schedules are not ideal for optimizing sleep and supporting a healthy immune system. Also, remember, a well-rested child will have a better attention span when doing school work the following day.

Keep naptime consistent

Just because there is nowhere you “need” to be, that doesn’t mean you should upset the naptime schedule that you worked so hard to set in place. No matter the age, a regular naptime supports a successful bedtime.

Give reassurances and talk through problems during the day

With anxiety and worry heightened during the coronavirus outbreak, your kids may try to hop into your bed or ask you to stick around while they fall asleep. However, nighttime support is habit forming, and will reduce a child’s independence with sleep transition. This may lead to difficulty falling asleep and returning to sleep.

As an alternative, find time during the day for support and talking through problems. Your child will be alert enough to listen to your reassurances and experience the security of your attachment and connection. This will more effective while not creating future sleep problems.

Take care of yourself

Managing life during the COVID-19 pandemic is tough and we are in uncharted territory. Remember to find time to also take of your health and wellness. Set aside one hour each day for “me-time” where you do something for yourself (e.g., bath, reading, supportive call with a friend), and make sure to get a good night’s sleep.

Lisa Medalie, PsyD, CBSM

Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM

Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM, is a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine. She specializes in the treatment of chronic insomnia in adults and children and uses evidence-based behavioral strategies in that effort.

See Dr. Lisa Medalie's physician profile