Why Won’t My Child Just GO TO SLEEP!?!

Young children have very little control over most things in their lives!

Your child may protest, whine, or tantrum to “get his/her way”. When it comes to sleep, eating, and toileting, you are at the mercy of your child! They CAN control those three areas. Even the best behavior analyst in the world cannot MAKE a child go to sleep, swallow food, or use the toilet! It’s no wonder those areas can be the most difficult for parents! Avoidance as an underlying reason (or function of the behavior) are often revealed during eating, sleeping, and toileting routines.

Did you know there are 6 common sleep disruptions in childhood?

Sleep disruptions are different than sleep disorders. While sleep disruptions are likely a learned pattern of unwanted behavior that develop after 1 year of age; sleep disorders indicate a medical issue.

  1. Night time routine noncompliance. This is occurring when your child refuses to go into his/her bedroom, delays parts of the routine or refuses completely, gets silly, or has a very long and inflexible bedtime routine prolonging the time s/he actually goes to sleep.
  2. Interfering behavior: These behaviors occur after you have bid your child good night and before s/he falls asleep. Your child engages in delay tactics (“One more drink”, “I need to go potty”, etc) or s/he may get out of bed multiple times.
  3. Delayed sleep onset: It takes a child more than 15 minutes to fall asleep. If so, s/he is practicing staying awake, which means that all of the cues in the environment that we have provided in a routine to signal “sleep is coming” to your child’s brain, are not working. We need to provide new cues for the brain in order to “re-train” the brain to fall asleep quickly using the environment as the cues, not you or another object, activity, or person.
  4. Night awakenings: A child wakes up and is unable to go back to sleep independently, refuses to go back to sleep, or remains awake longer than desired.
  5. Early awakenings: A child wakes earlier than desired. As a result, the child may not be getting enough total sleep. This can also be an indication of your child being expected to sleep too much. If your child is allocating too much sleep to the day time, s/he may not need as much during the overnight.
  6. Sleep dependencies: A child requires the presence of an adult, pacifier, blanket, physical touch, movement, or nursing/bottle to fall asleep.


Children do NOT necessarily outgrow sleep disruptions!

Sleep disruptions are learned behaviors and can be “un-learned”! Children learn to avoid going to sleep because they CAN control that! You may be wondering: How does a child learn avoidance?

Avoidance begins in a variety of areas in a child’s life. It can start out simple and playful but if you’re not aware of it, it can develop and your child practices avoiding non-preferred or difficult tasks. For example, every time you tell your child it’s time for a diaper change; s/he runs away, to which you begin a game of chase. Your child has just learned that his/her avoidance of the diaper change resulted in a fun game of chase!

What other parts of their day does your child try to control or avoid?

Does your child delay other tasks?

Will your child follow most of the instructions you give, or does s/he attempt to avoid listening?

Does your child pretend to not hear you?

Is ending preferred activities or transitioning to a new task (leaving the park, pausing electronics, etc.) difficult for you child?

These are all potentially AVOIDANT behaviors!

If your child finds avoidance to be useful, s/he will continue to use it! The actual unwanted behavior may change over time, but avoidance is the underlying motivation. Do you drop a tool in your toolbox that is working for you? NO- You hold on to it and protect it! So will your child with his/her pattern of unwanted behavior, until you provide another tool that works just as good, if not better!

It’s hard to hear “no”, especially when sleepy!

Does your child have a hard time hearing “no”? We call those “denials”. Lots of denials occur at bedtime: “no you can’t stay up” “not one more story”, “not one more drink”, “not one more hug”. If your child can’t tolerate hearing “no” during times when s/he is awake, playing, in a good mood, and doing something fun, why would s/he be able to tolerate it at bedtime when s/he is sleepy? Teach your child to tolerate denials in other situations first before we can expect your child to respond appropriately during bedtime or night wakings!

Your child’s sleep disruption may SEEM apparent, but there’s more!

To determine a successful and appropriate plan to address your child’s sleep disruptions, we first recommend an assessment to determine the reason, or function of the unwanted behavior and which sleep disruptions are at play. Most children have more than one of the 6 disruptions listed above. If a plan only addresses one of the disruptions, you will experience temporary improvement at best.

In our years of service to families, we have seen that reducing avoidant behaviors and tolerating denials all day, everyday are necessary skill areas to address in order to experience resolve of sleep concerns. Teaching those skills, a thorough assessment of sleep disruptions, and specific plans to reduce sleep disruptions has lead Behave Your Best to help many families stop saying, “Why won’t my child just GO TO SLEEP!?!”

Our goal is to empower you with education so you can be the expert of your child’s sleep and behavior. Here are some ways we can help:

Schedule your complimentary 30-minute phone consultation now!

Register for our July 2018 Webinars “Be Your Child’s Sleep Expert”

Can’t make it to or missed the webinars? Click here to rent the parent workshop OnDemand “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Disruptions!” for unlimited access for 90 days. 30-minute phone consultation included!

Alicia Janni, BS, BCaBA



My Best,

Alicia Janni, BS, BCaBA



The material contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not intended to create or constitute a behavioral consultation relationship between Behave Your Best, LLC and the reader. The information contained herein is not offered as behavioral consultation and should not be construed as behavioral consultation.