Why Little Kids’ Sleep Is So Wild

The other night my children slept at their grandparents’ apartment. They both had trouble sleeping, which is not unusual when they’re away from home, and my poor parents ended up sharing beds with the kids. The little one ended up kicking her granddad in the back all night long.

If my parents had asked me, I could have told them that bed sharing was a huge mistake — we have a strict sleep-in-your-own-bed policy in our house for precisely this reason. My 9-year-old can deal, but my 5-year-old sleeps like a maniac. Sometimes when I get her up in the morning, she has spun 180 degrees from her original position, and her feet are on her pillow. Other times, she will be half off the bed, in some uncomfortable-looking, almost balletic pose. Without fail, she wakes up looking as if she’d been through a spin cycle.

This reminds me of a great bit from the comedian Nate Bargatze, who riffed, “Kids don’t know how to sleep.” Because he’s on the road so much, when he’s home, he and his wife share the bed with their daughter, but as he put it: “She makes a king bed feel like a twin. I mean, I’m on the edge. When I sleep alone in a hotel, I have to sleep with my head on the night stand. It’s the only way I know how to go to bed. She gets sideways, upside down. If you woke up upside down tomorrow, you would go to the hospital.”

I, too, would wind up calling a doctor in this scenario. Until my dad (a doctor!) told me about my kid kicking him all night, I had never thought too deeply about how wild her sleep behavior appears to be. But the experience inspired me to email three sleep specialists about why little kids seem to move so much more than adults or even older children while they’re asleep.

“Moving around during sleep is really normal for most kids, especially infants through preschoolers,” said Shelby Harris, a clinical associate professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Everyone — adults included — wakes up between sleep cycles.

According to Harris, we don’t really know for certain why little kids move more than adults, but she said, “The idea of sleeping with your head toward the pillow and feet toward the bottom is thought to be a learned construct.” So when little kids are waking up between sleep cycles, they just move their bodies to be comfortable, and they don’t care if it’s using their stuffed panda as a pillow while their feet are dangling off the side of the bed.

Little kids may also have developed somewhat unorthodox methods of getting themselves to sleep, said Lynelle Schneeberg, a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the author of “Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach: The Bedtime Doctor’s 5-Step Guide, Ages 3-10.” Their routine may involve “something like kicking their legs, rubbing their feet together or rocking their body. Many kids do this, but most outgrow it over time,” Schneeberg said.

Despite my younger daughter’s nighttime rumpus, she is the best sleeper of the four of us and without fail wakes up cheerful, full of energy and ready to face the day. However, if your kid sleeps crazily and doesn’t seem to be rested, that may be something to talk to your pediatrician about. “Sleep disorders can actually manifest as restless sleep,” said Dr. Craig Canapari, the director of the pediatric sleep medicine program at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. He said:

If you’re worried about any of these maladies, the first stop, as always, is your child’s pediatrician. But, as Dr. Canapari said, “it is reasonable for parents to consider stopping nightly bed sharing if they are sleeping poorly. Everyone in the home deserves to sleep well.” Amen to that.

Want More on Kids and Sleep?

  • Even though my kids don’t sleep in our bed, they still wake us up in the middle of the night. In November, I wrote about why that can be within the range of normal but also how to get children to quit it.

  • In September, Shelby Harris talked to me about “momsomnia” — otherwise known as revenge bedtime procrastination, in which you stay up later than you should just to feel some kind of freedom — and other parental sleep problems.

  • Staff members at Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Company, suggest their favorite pajamas, books and night lights for helping their kids get to sleep. My recommendation: When my older daughter and I have trouble falling asleep, we listen to short meditations and stories from the app Sleepiest.

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