Sleep tips for young children and teenagers

If you aren't a parent, you may consider skipping this email. However, the sleep mechanisms/science underlying these protocols are still relevant to those of other age groups. Also, you might find you can lend some helpful advice to your next adult client presenting with headaches relating to their lack of sleep, secondary to their children's sleeping habits! 

Children (3-12 years)

What time should I put my child to bed?

This depends on their age (3 - 5yo = 10 - 13 hours, 6- 13 yo 9 - 11 hours), sleep quality and wakefulness during the day. In other words, there are guidelines, but you need to see how well your child is coping with the amount and quality of sleep they are receiving. If they struggle to get up or experience daytime drowsiness, they may need more.

Woven into this conversation comes the question about having children in the parent's bed. This can start with nighttime fears, sickness or just the child perceives it is more fun sleeping with Mum and/or Dad. Often an emotional conversation, I just add some points for the parent(s) to consider;

  • once children sleep in your bedroom, it is very hard to get them out
  • the adult bedroom is recommended for sleep and sex (both are difficult with young ones in situ)
  • partner sleeping studies show that when one moves the other usually does, so the more people in bed, the more disruptions to sleep quality (also applies to pets in bed)

So, if you want children to respect your space, or they are currently sleeping in your room and you want this to change, we can harness the concept of delayed gratification. Everyone has heard of the Standford Marshmellow (1972) experiment that linked long-term measures of success to delayed gratification (willpower). Using the below technique is one way we can help our children develop this lifelong skill.

The Bedtime Pass

Key points to overcoming bedtime resistance;

  • establish a regular bedtime to help set your child's internal body clock. Consistency is key. Establish a regular bedtime to help set your child's internal body clock
  • for children who have a difficult time staying in their bedroom or cry out requiring attention, the bedtime pass concept for your child may be valuable
  • sit down with your child and explain what you are going to do
  • you and your child should make the pass

Explain the Bedtime Pass concept

Sit down with your child and explain what you are going to do. Explain that your child is having difficulty going to sleep on their own and that you have come up with an idea of how to help.

"I know it's hard for you to go to sleep so I have thought of an idea for you"

"You and I are going to make a pass for you to use every night. You will get to use the pass once per night. After Mum or Dad has put you to bed you can use the pass for one free trip out of your room, for some specific reason. An example could be if you want to give Mum or Dad one last hug, or one last trip to the toilet. If you do use the pass you need to give it to Mum or Dad and go straight back to bed".

Stress that the free trip out of their room needs to be for a short specific reason (5 minutes or less). Let them know what happens next. Explain what happens after your child has used the pass.

"After you use your pass you give it to Mum or Dad, and then go back to bed and stay there for the rest of the night".

Making the Bedtime Pass

You and your child should then make the pass. You can use cardboard or note cards cut to about the size of a small photograph as long as the pass is sturdy. Allow your child to colour, add stickers or write on the pass to make it their own. Building their agency is important.

Using the Bedtime Pass

Just before bed, hand the pass to your child and remind them of the purpose. Follow your typical bedtime routine and then leave the room. If your child asks to use the pass, allow this and then take the pass. Send your child back to bed and remind them that it is time to stay in their room and be quiet.

What if my child keeps calling out after using the pass?

If your child calls out AFTER using the pass, ignore this behaviour. Even if this behaviour gets worse, continue to ignore the behaviour. If your child comes out of the room after using the pass, physically guide them back to bed with no or minimal talking.


For the first few nights when you are using the pass, remind your child of the rules of using the pass, give them the pass and follow the same routine. The research base on this protocol provides good evidence of both initial success and longer-term durability. Let's now look at understanding teenagers.

Teenagers (13-18 years)

Regarding teenagers, what is the number one challenge voiced by parents?

"I can't get them up in the morning", or "they just won't go to bed at a reasonable time". These are the same coin, just different sides.

Let's start with the facts. Teenagers require 8-10 hours of sleep per night (adults 7-8 hours) to enable adequate release of growth hormones, repair and rebuild mental and physical health, integrate new learning and recover from the stresses of the prior day.

It is known that teenagers do have a different circadian clock cf adults, which is where the challenge starts. Teenagers' melatonin production peaks later and as a result they naturally are ready for sleep around 10-11 pm, often well after their parents have entered the world of nod. Asking them to go to bed earlier is like asking their parent to go to bed at 7-8 pm. You simply can't force your brain to go to sleep, if it is not ready. This 'delayed sleep phase' experienced by teenagers is both natural and corrects itself in early adulthood. It isn't related to sleep hygiene, cell phones, or parenting techniques and happens universally to teenagers around the world. If teenagers could sleep in to 8 or 9am all would be good. The problem arises when teenagers are forced out of bed to catch school buses or attend sports activities or music lessons before they have achieved their necessary 8-10 hours of sleep. Missing out on their last phase of rapid eye movement sleep means less learning and integration, less problem-solving capacity and reduced daytime concentration. Due to this, there is a strong push to start school later than the standard 8.30am.

We can assist teenagers by moderating the degree of delayed phase shift through cognitive behaviour techniques. Ideally, we want teenagers to be ready for sleep earlier in the evening and to achieve this we need to phase shift their circadian clocks forward. We know that bright light (sunshine), and activity reduce melatonin production (sleeping hormone). Starting 15 minutes earlier than their normal waking time, provide exposure to direct sunshine/bright light for 15-20 minutes, in combination with walking or other exercise. Some research indicates turning on lights before teenagers wake also assists in a forward phase shift. These activities will start the process of resetting their circadian clock earlier, and over several days they will be more inclined to go to bed earlier all other variables remaining the same.

Phase shifts using cognitive behavioural techniques is one area discussed in the Sleep Mastery Course that details techniques and protocols based on science that you can use with your clients to improve their quality and quantity of sleep.

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