Children & Discipline

My Kids Don’t Eat or Sleep

Published: 23 Mar 2015
My Kids Don’t Eat or Sleep

Hi Dr Justin,

We have two girls; one 9yrs and one 5 yrs. Our five year old girl is very clingy to me (mummy) and never wants to sleep without me. We have taken her back to her room many many times and through the night she keeps coming back. We have made her room nice, somewhere she is happy to be, however no luck. She doesn’t want to be alone.

I had an accident 13 years ago and broke three bones in my back, I don’t sleep well at the best of times and having our youngest in our bed adds to the lack of sleep, also adding to my daily tiredness and making life generally difficult.

Our 9yr old daughter sleeps in her bed no problem however she is a terrible eater, won’t eat vegetables and hardly any fruit. She only wants high sugar high carb foods.

We have given her dinner and said if you don’t eat this there will be nothing else and this doesn’t work, she just has a meltdown and refuses to eat her dinner.

Your help and advice would be greatly appreciated.


Dr Justin responds:

We’re going to try and squeeze in two for the price of one in this response! First up, your five year-old doesn’t like sleeping alone.

There comes a time for every parent when we just want our bed back, and we want to sleep all night long. It doesn’t sound unreasonable does it? Unfortunately our children often see things differently.

My usual recommendations are along the following lines:

  1. Make sure you have a calm, easy bed-time routine that involves your children going to bed at about the same time every night (or within 30 minutes). This might include dinner, followed by teeth brushing and bath, pyjamas, toilet, stories, cuddles, a song or two, and then lights out.
  2. Some children feel safer when a soft light is left on at night.
  3. Being firm with her during the night will make her feel less safe and secure, rather than more.
  4. Instead of taking her to bed and leaving her there, it might help to snuggle with her until she is asleep. Sometimes you might prefer to lie on the floor and pat her back as she drifts off. Then return to your own bed.
  5. Some families have success in leaving their child in their own bed, and one of the parents hops into the child’s single bed. Once it’s that hour of the night, many people suggest it doesn’t matter where you’re sleeping, so long as you actually are sleeping!

There are some who would argue that you should just shut her in the room with the door closed. Such a response will lead to stress, anxiety, fear, and more tantrums. Eventually she may settle, but inwardly she’ll be frightened, and feel abandoned. This is one of the most psychologically harmful things we can make our children feel, so I recommend a far more compassionate approach. The best bet is to help her feel loved, safe, and calm, and to pat her off, or allow her to sleep where it works best. You’re not creating a rod for your back either.

I guarantee that except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, in a relatively short time she will feel safe enough that the issue will go away and she’ll sleep through the night in her own bed.

Now to your second daughter and her preference for avoiding any good quality meals:

I’ve written an ebook about this topic with Dietician, Fiona Sutherland, from Body Positive Australia. The ebook is called “Eat Right Without a Fight” and I suspect you’ll get some great ideas from there. These are some guidelines we suggest:

  • Provide meals at a consistent time and place
  • Provide a diversity of colours, flavours, and options
  • Always encourage children to try something several times – often over several different presentations of that meal across a few weeks or months
  • Trust your child to do well with eating
  • Avoid criticism, shaming, pressuring, or controlling
  • Understand children’s preferences and honour them, while still finding ways to expand their palate
  • Recognise the developmental capacity of children to try on new experiences with food
  • Keep language about food positive
  • Make meal time positive and fun – and family-centred
  • Promote awareness in your children of their natural hunger and thirst signals
  • Be a good example of positive eating


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