Ask Maxwell: How Can I Help My Daughter to Fall Asleep?

published Jun 13, 2022
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan

My daughter is in sixth grade, school starts early but has trouble falling asleep at night so she’s exhausted every day. Any recommendations?


Dear Lucy,

I have insomnia myself so I’ve wrestled with this for years. As a kid I used to lay awake in bed and listen to my clock radio for hours before falling asleep. One thing that worked really well was when my brother and I were both sleeping in our mother’s bed (she used to get annoyed at how much we moved around) and she said one night, “The first one to fall asleep gets a Milky Way bar.” Which was our favorite. We were both asleep in minutes, but no one could prove which of us won the Milky Way.

I don’t recommend this as a strategy in general. 🙂

While problems falling asleep can come from stress and anxiety, I’m not going to try to address those here. Also, if you have a really young toddler, this article by Lizzie Goodman is for you. I’m only going to share what has helped me and my daughter over the years and is purely physical. I think the quickest way to get to sleep is to get OUT of the head, which means getting INTO your body, so this is what I would recommend. It’s not novel or earth shattering, but it works.

1. The Same Time Each Night. Sleep is triggered by keeping a regular rhythm, so that keeping a steady time for winding down and turning off the lights is crucial. Step one!

2. A Warm Bath. The best way to get out of your head and into your body in the evening is to take a warm bath (shower is good too). This relaxes all the muscles, slows you down and warms the soul as well. My daughter has an elaborate face washing and hair routine, which seems to work well for her at 15. However you can shift the bodily senses from daytime mode to nighttime mode will help here.

3. Cozy PJ’s. Don’t need to say much here, but I do think the way we’re swaddled as babies helps us go to sleep, so why not also give your older child a little “swaddle” as well. Warm, soft, cozy pajamas (and sheets!) do the trick.

4. A Dark, Cool Room. One thing I’ve learned as an adult is that light is a direct trigger to wakefulness. I learned this the hard way when my friends and I tried to sleep in an all night laundromat in State College, PA when my car broke down on the way home from college. The light was so strong we couldn’t sleep even though we were exhausted. Light will keep you awake, noise not so much, so keep your child’s room as dark as they will allow and keep it cool. I like 69 degrees, which seems to settle the body down under the covers for a restful sleep. Room too warm?? You are very likely to have trouble sleeping.

5. Reading To Wind Down. Getting kids in bed early and either reading to them or giving them time to read to themselves is another classic way to help them transition to sleep. I still do it to myself to go to sleep. In particular, I’ve found that fiction and fantasy is far better than graphic, non-fiction to get the brain to turn off from the day and begin the journey of floating away.

6. Calming Sounds are Lovely. My daughter, in particular, is a big fan of ASMR sounds to help her go to sleep. I’ve never tried this, but it seems common sense and not totally unlike sound machines that are used to help babies sleep. ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response and are very close up sounds of things like whispering, tapping and crinkling that stimulate the back of your head in a pleasing way. They are found on YouTube of all places and Mashable explains them here. I have one friend who loves to listen to salt blocks being slowly sawed in half.

7. Screens, phones and Devices are Not Helpful. Simply put, screens and devices are stimulating and will not help your child go to sleep. Putting them away well before bed time will help them a great deal.

Finally, I know I’ve said this many times, but it always helps to hear it again – your kids will ultimately do what you do. You are their biggest role model. So, if you do all these things for them but have irregular bed times for yourself, stay up late, hang out on your phone and otherwise fight sleep, they probably will too. The best thing you can give your child is a your own best example of preparing for bed, turning off the light and going to bed.

Best, M

PS. A shameless plug for my friend, Laura Fenton’s new book – The Bunk Bed Book – which is a really delicious and creative book which will inspire you and your kids to crawl into bed early!

Credit: Laura Fenton

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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