So I put my son down at 8pm today. Normally I put him down at 7:45pm. He naps from 2 to 4 PM. He usually sleeps until 6:15am or 7 AM.

I went into his room two hours after putting him down to get something and he was awake. I asked him why he wasn’t sleeping and he said “I don’t know how to sleep.“

It normally takes him 45 minutes to fall asleep. That’s why I put him down a little bit later tonight—to see if it would help him get to sleep faster. On the monitor it looked like he had fallen asleep, he wasn’t moving.

This is not the first time he has said “I don’t know how to fall asleep.” I suspect he lays in his crib awake more often then we realize, because he doesn’t seem well rested.

Some may say, well then he has outgrown the nap. He was just recently weaned from a three hour nap. On taking the nap away completely or reducing it any more than I have, he becomes overtired and has trouble sleeping at night and ends up crashing the next afternoon.

Why do you think he has so much trouble falling asleep? Is it a sign of anxiety? High intelligence? A cognitive delay—he has exceptional language skills but he has trouble being a self-starter or problem-solving.

“I don’t know how to fall asleep.“ That phrase really bothers me. Do I need to take him to a psychiatrist?

  • 2
    I would ask your pediatrician before going to a psychiatrist. Also, have you tried to get him to elaborate on that statement? Does he not feel tired? Does he not have good strategies for winding down so he can fall asleep? Does he feel like he doesn't know what to do / what he can do about it so just lays there and hopes it happens?
    – Becuzz
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 13:25

1 Answer 1


Your child sounds like he could've been me as a child. I had exactly the same problem, and the same way of thinking about it. I didn't know how to go to sleep, and my parents largely couldn't help me. I just knew that lights-out was a certain time, but when lights-out happened I usually would lay in bed for an hour or more.

For me, I didn't really figure it out until I had kids myself; until then I would usually have to exhaust myself in order to go to sleep, or read a book in bed until I fell asleep.

My oldest has this problem also, and we've tried to be more strategic about it than my parents were. We talk to him about "sleep strategies," such as making up stories in his head, but we also tell him it's okay to just lay there until he drifts off - there's nothing wrong with it. We also focus on giving him a lot of agency over bedtime; he goes "to bed" well before we really expect him to be asleep, and he is able to read for an hour or more without being over the "needs to be asleep" limit.

I'd encourage you to talk to your three year old about strategies for falling asleep. It's possible he does need a later bedtime, though it sounds like you're still doing okay right now with sleep - so maybe this is just more of an academic exercise right now.

I'd also wonder if he's simply starting to realize what most people realize at some point - usually later, but maybe he's precocious - that falling asleep is something that happens without your agency. My children used to argue with me when I'd tell them they'd fallen asleep - because they didn't know they were asleep, because that's just how sleep works. You're not conscious of being asleep, and when you are conscious you're not asleep. He may be verbalizing that he doesn't know how it works, which shows great understanding for that age.

As to why this happens, my long suspicion has been that it's just a matter of not knowing how to "turn off" the mind. It's sort of like the "don't think of the pink elephant" problem: if your mind is very active, it can be hard to turn it off. My wife and I are dissimilar here; we both have very active minds, but she's able to turn off quite effectively while I am not.

I'm also a very sound sleeper once asleep - while I know it's a meme to say that the husband sleeps through the baby cries conveniently, I truly do not wake up to anything short of a nuclear explosion once I'm asleep, until the wake-up time that I often wake up just before the alarm (and if I'm too tired or set the alarm too early, I often won't wake up to it the first go-around).

Additionally, I can't visualize images "inside" my head (meaning, if you say "imagine a horse" to me, I don't see a picture of a horse in my head), which I feel has led to it being harder to stop thinking about outside stimuli - as I don't have anything to retreat to except darkness inside my head.

  • N.b.: I'm not addressing the medical concerns, as this isn't something we can address here. If you're concerned about his psychological state or any medical condition, please ask your pediatrician - they're the best person to answer that kind of question.
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 14:55
  • Joe—Thank you for your thoughtful answer. Can I ask you if you have any non verbal “issues.” I question if my son had the precursors to a non verbal learning disability. He has trouble with visual motor integration and motor planning—he cannot do finger plays or follow the leader without any verbal cues, and even with cues his coordination is akin to a 2yo. when u say u cannot visualize images I wonder if that is true for him. I tried a guided meditation the other day—he really enjoyed it but I felt it was more entertainment than a sleep aid.
    – ChefShab
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 15:15
  • Like I said in my comment, I don't want to venture into that realm: you need to talk to your pediatrician. Neither I nor anyone here can or should diagnose your child with any medical condition. If you have any concerns, talk to your pediatrician!
    – Joe
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 16:11
  • Ok fair enough. Thanks
    – ChefShab
    Commented Jul 16, 2020 at 18:25

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