Breaking Bad Sleep Habits in Kids

I’ve been thinking a lot about habits related to sleep issues in children, after having finished The Power of Habitby Charles Duhigg (affiliate link). The dictionary defines habits as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up: this can develop into a bad habit | we stayed together out of habit.” We tend to think of very specific behaviors when we think of habits, both good (exercising regularly, eating well, meditating) and bad (smoking, watching TV for four hours every night), but let’s think of them more broadly. For example, when I commute to work, I grab my keys and wallet, hop in the car, and drive the same route every day without thinking about it. Recently, I had to go to a satellite clinic, but I still got off of my usual exit for work before I realized my mistake. My habit in this case was my usual set of behaviors (habit) that most days reduces the friction in my morning, but in this case tripped me up.

To quote from Mr. Duhigg’s book:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ ” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005[1]. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day— and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.

Bedtime Is A Habit

Every night, you put your child to bed. If you have a good routine (and you should, as a good bedtime routine is the foundation of successful sleep in children), bedtime may look like this:

Habit cue reward.001This is what Duhigg calls a “habit loop”:

  • The cue is the trigger for the habit or routine. In this case, it is the usual time to begin bedtime.
  • The routine is the sequence of behaviors that you do at bedtime to settle your child down. Bathing, reading together, cuddling, etc.
  • The reward is a blissful segue into a refreshing night of sleep for the whole family.

Wait. That doesn’t sound like my house!

If you are reading this blog, your house may look very different. Let’s say that your child won’t fall asleep without you lying there, and then wakes up multiple times during the night due to sleep onset associations.

In this case:

  • The cue is your child having difficulty falling asleep or waking up at night.
  • The routine is lying down with them so they can fall asleep.
  • The reward is a few hours of sleep until they wake up again.

Let’s take another example. Let’s say your child needs a bottle of milk multiple times during the night, a scenario I describe as “learned hunger”.

In this case:

  • The cue is your child waking up at night.
  • The routine is drinking a bottle of milk.
  • The reward is a few hours of sleep until they wake up again.

That’s great and all. How does this help me?

Again, I’m going to Duhigg’s book for this. He notes that it is really hard to just stop a habit. Ideally, you need to substitute a new routine, and it may take trial and error to figure out what will work best for you and your family. Let’s take the examples above.

If your child needs you to fall asleep

  • You can change the routine slowly, by “camping out” or other sleep training methods. If you want to change it quickly, you can resort to cry it out (CIO). This is obviously more painful as it is equivalent to going “cold turkey” when you are quitting smoking.
  • Changing the cue includes changing the bedtime.

If your child is feeding at night

Other examples of substituting a less desirable routine for a better one may include:

  • When you get rid of your child’s pacifier giving them a new teddy bear to sleep with.
  • When you move the television or other electronics out of your child’s room, setting up a nice reading lamp and buying some new books for them.
  • Moving a cosleeping child into their own room.

One other insight is that habits are pretty ingrained. Changing them takes effort and consistency; it is easy for old, bad habits to resurface if, say, you take a vacation or your child gets sick. Fortunately, if you have been successful in the past, revisit whatever interventions you made to address your child’s sleep issues, and you will succeed again.

Can you think of other sleep habits (good or bad) that may be affecting your child’s sleep, and your own?


  1. Here’s an animated video of this that is well worth ten minutes of your time:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfw2Qf1VfJo ↩

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