The Lifelong Dangers of Telling Children They’re Bad Sleepers

If you tell a kid they’re a bad sleeper enough times, they’ll believe you.

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If you think your kid is a bad sleeper, don’t say so. Parents who label their children as bad sleepers early in life risk turning them into sleepless, self-fulfilling prophecies according to Noah S. Siegel, a physician and sleep specialist at Harvard Medical School. In more than 17 years of clinical experience, he’s found that a majority of people with insomnia have one thing in common: as kids, their parents told them they were bad sleepers.

“If you’ve been told your whole life you’re a bad sleeper, that’s just kind of what you believe. Whether you are or not is a different story,” Siegel tells Fatherly. “It becomes more of a mental thing than anything else.”

Siegel isn’t saying your kids are not terrible sleepers. Diagnosable sleep disorders are actually more common in children than adults. Research shows that up to 1 in 4 of kids may have behavioral insomnia. Between other childhood sleep disorders—sleep talking and walking, night terrors, wetting the bed, sleep apnea—the American Academy of Family Physicians suspects that approximately half of all children experience some sleep problems.

Siegel agrees that a high proportion of children are bad sleepers. “If you got a room together of 100 parents of 1 or 2-year-olds, I think it would be the exception for someone to say ‘my kid is a great sleeper’,” he says.

But that doesn’t mean these kids should be labeled as bad sleepers, especially since many childhood sleep disorders can be explained by decidedly childhood problems. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids often cause snoring and sleep apnea; poor sleep training methods are usually behind behavioral insomnia. And although scientists aren’t sure why kids have night terrors or sleep walk, kids tend to outgrow these problems, Siegel says.

Siegel, himself a parent, understands that it can be difficult to exercise restraint when your child is snoring and sleepwalking his way down the staircase every other night. And he certainly advises parents to report their concerns to their doctors. But your kids don’t need to know that you think they’re terrible at sleeping.

Meanwhile, Siegel says you can help your kids get past a tricky sleep chapter by implementing a consistent bedtime routine—and by chilling out. In many cases, Siegel says, sleep specialists who specialize in childhood sleep disorders treat the parents even more than they treat the kids—much of what they prescribe is meant to help parents get through these relatively normal obstacles without projecting sleep anxieties onto their kids. For instance, doctors some times advise parents to wake their children every 90 minutes to avoid night terrors. That may be effective—night terrors typically take place only after about 90 minutes of sleep—but it’s mostly just a way of giving parents a sense of control over the situation, so that they calm down. Doctors can’t prescribe sleeping pills for the kids, Siegel quips, but sometimes he wishes he could prescribe them for the frazzled parents.

Siegel also tries to convey to his concerned clients that there’s no such thing as a “bad sleeper”. Humans are built with the innate ability to sleep and, when substances, activities, stress, and unnatural light exposure aren’t getting in the way, our circadian clocks are usually already primed to tick just so.

“Your body wants to sleep, that’s what we’re designed to do,” Siegel says. “But we’ve gotten really good at messing it up.”

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