Every child needs good sleep for healthy development, growth, and learning. As parents, it’s your job to help children establish good sleep habits for a lifetime. Children learn how to sleep from their parents, so the habits you establish today can help them maintain healthy sleep not just in childhood, but for the rest of their lives.
But while establishing good sleep is important for children, parents may feel a little lost when it comes to actually teaching good sleep habits. This is particularly apparent during the challenges of newborn sleep, toddler sleep resistance, and the never ending struggle in older children between endless activities and adequate rest. In this guide, parents and caregivers can learn more about helping children sleep healthy. The guide shares common sleep challenges for young children, school age children, and teenagers, along with helpful tips and resources for making the most of sleep at each stage.
Healthy Sleep for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
Sleep is often one of the biggest challenges for parents of young children. Babies and toddlers are at an age when they’re still developing good sleeping habits — but they also need adequate sleep for health and development.
When babies and children don’t get enough consolidated REM sleep, they will have shorter attention spans. Young children without enough sleep will also release more cortisol, a stress hormone that will cause shorter naps and more frequent night wakings, perpetuating sleep problems.
Newborns in particular can be challenging, as they have irregular sleep patterns. At this age, babies have not yet developed circadian rhythms. At about six weeks, circadian rhythms begin developing. Most infants have a regular sleep and wake cycle by three to six months.
It’s important for parents to establish healthy sleep patterns early in every child’s life. American Academy of Pediatrics research indicates that children who have difficulty sleeping at six months are more likely to have difficulty at later time points, even holding on to poor sleep habits up to and sometimes beyond the age of three.
Young children sleep many hours of the day. By age two, most children have slept more than they’ve been awake. Children spend roughly 40 percent of their childhood asleep.
But even though young children sleep much of the day, they may only sleep for a few hours at a time, which is often difficult for parents, especially at night. But with consistent healthy sleep habits, even the youngest children can learn how to sleep well.
Common Sleep Problems for Infants and Toddlers
- Inability to self-soothe: Often, babies will fall asleep easily when held by their parents, but wake up right away when set down. Babies may still be learning to self-soothe.
- Daytime and nighttime reversal: As young babies have not yet developed circadian rhythms, they may not have night and day straight yet. Some get them mixed up, sleeping all day and then wanting to stay up at night. This is due to movement while in the womb: daytime activity rocked the baby to sleep all day while leaving the baby awake at night. Limiting daytime naps and making clear distinctions between day and night can help resolve this problem.
- Sleep regressions: During certain periods of development, babies may be especially sleep-challenged. As they develop motor skills, grow teeth, or learn new things, they may have more trouble sleeping. But it is temporary. It’s important to stick with routines and schedules even during this difficult time so that you can work through it and maintain consistency until regular sleeping patterns return.
- Nighttime feedings: Most babies won’t sleep through the night until they are six months or older. Very young babies will need multiple night feedings — exhausting, but necessary. One to two night feedings are normal for most babies, but three or more may be excessive. If your baby is waking up several times in the night to feed, talk to your paediatrician. Some babies fall asleep during feedings and don’t get enough to fill their bellies. While normally, you should avoid stimulation at night, it may be necessary to keep baby awake during feedings so that they can get a full belly at each feeding and extend their time in between nighttime feedings.
- Nighttime stimulation: While feeding or changing your baby at night, they can get stimulated. This may make them more fully awake and cause difficulties falling back asleep. Parents should take care to avoid fully rousing babies in the night.
- Separation anxiety: Young children can develop separation anxiety, often expressed as a need for one or both parents at night. While frustrating and sad, the American Academy of Pediatrics reassures parents that this is a normal stage in development. Children may need reassurance throughout the night. They suggest letting children know when you have to leave, creating a diversion, and using a familiar babysitter when you’re going out for the night.
- Sleep resistance: Babies may be willing to sleep whenever you encourage them to, but toddlers and preschoolers often have a mind of their own. They’re busy exploring new things all day, playing and learning, and may not want the fun to end just because it’s bedtime. Toddlers and preschoolers may move slowly through the bedtime routine, make many requests to make bedtime take longer, or flat out refuse to get in bed and go to sleep. It’s important to be firm but gentle with young children who resist regular bedtimes.
Helpful Tips for Baby and Toddler Sleep
- Develop a reliable schedule: Babies and children thrive on routine. Maintaining a regular schedule for nap times and bedtime is an important part of healthy sleep in early childhood. With consistent times for sleep, your child is comforted and knows what to expect. And a child’s body will naturally begin to prepare for sleep around regular sleep times.
- Create a sleep friendly environment: Some babies can and do sleep anywhere, but to establish healthy sleep habits, it’s important to develop a friendly sleep environment. Your young child’s sleeping environment should be dark, cool, and comfortable. They may also benefit from a comfort item, such as a pacifier for young babies and a security object like a blanket or stuffed animal for children one year and older.
- Create a consistent bedtime routine: Establish a consistent bedtime routine early on to help your child settle into bedtime. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just the same each night so that they know it’s time to get to bed. Many parents build a routine out of taking a bath, brushing teeth, singing songs, reading books, and sharing a quick snuggle. Toddlers and preschoolers may be able to make straightening up toys a part of their bedtime routine as well.
- Avoid naps too close to bedtime: Daytime naps are important and should be treated as seriously as nighttime sleep. After all, naps make up important sleeping time for your baby or toddler. But let children nap too close to bedtime, and they’ll be too well rested to fall asleep for the night.
- Put babies and toddlers to bed when they’re sleepy: It’s best to get young children to bed as soon as they start to show signs of sleepiness. They can indicate their tiredness with crying, rubbing their eyes, or becoming fussy. Babies who are put in bed while still sleepy will learn how to get themselves to sleep better than those placed in bed already asleep.
- Keep babies calm and quiet when feeding or changing at night: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding too much stimulation while feeding or changing babies at night. Keep lights and voices low and avoid engaging your baby’s attention.
- Place babies on their backs to sleep: Babies up to one year of age, but especially between one and four months, are at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Place your baby on his or her back on a firm sleep surface free of soft objects and loose bedding to reduce the risk.
- Keep a tracking log if you’re concerned: If you feel your baby or toddler isn’t sleeping as well as their peers, consider logging their sleep. It’s tough to remember exactly what happened in the fuzzy early hours of the morning, but a log can help you spot patterns and figure out exactly how much your baby — and you — are sleeping. You may also be able to identify ideal times to put your baby down for the night or even see that you really weren’t up for three hours with your baby even though it certainly felt like it at the time.
- Play during the day: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends talking and playing with your baby during the day. This will lengthen the time they are awake during the day and help encourage sleeping longer at night. Be careful to avoid active play just before bedtime.
- Don’t immediately respond to cries: Teach children to self-soothe by giving them a few minutes before responding to fussing. The American Academy of Pediatrics says you should wait to see if they will fall asleep on their own before checking in.
- Keep consistent sleep habits with all caregivers: While your child is cared for by babysitters, family members, and other caregivers, make sure they’re still consistently following established sleep times and routines so they don’t get off track.
- Treat sleep problems: If you suspect your child has a serious sleep problem that interferes with their ability to get adequate sleep or function well during the day, don’t hesitate to talk to your paediatrician and get help from a sleep specialist if necessary.
- Be patient: Young children are still learning how to sleep well, so it’s important for parents to exercise patience and understanding as they develop good sleep habits. Be patient and supportive and get help if you’re experiencing challenges you can’t handle yourself.
Healthy Sleep for School Age Children
Just like babies and toddlers, school age children need plenty of sleep to learn and perform their best. And sleep problems don’t stop once your children are out of the preschool stage. Unfortunately, as school obligations, evening activities, and later bedtimes are introduced, children in this age group can often experience significant sleep challenges.
At this age, REM sleep has significantly changed from that of a newborn or preschooler. School age children are spending far less time in the REM stage of sleep. And that means they need to make the most of the deep sleep they’re getting each night.
The school year in particular can make sleeping difficult for children. While children often have more time to sleep during school holidays, they fall back into a strict sleep schedule when school is in session. Researcher and former school psychology director Joseph A. Buckhalt, PhD says that transitions can be particularly difficult at the start of a school year.
“When school is out for holidays and summers, children usually adopt a less strict schedule and their wake times are often much later, resulting in more sleep time,” says Buckhalt. “Transitions back to school pose some challenges on Mondays, but may be particularly difficult at the start of a new school year.”
This is unfortunate, as Buckhalt says children are more adversely affected by insufficient sleep. Not getting enough sleep can cause issues with alertness, learning, and memory in school age children. But with enough sleep, children can better retain and organize the new information they learn each day.
Education experts say a lack of sleep is an epidemic for children today. But they also say that adequate sleep can be a secret weapon for school success.
Of course, good sleep for school age children has benefits beyond learning. Establishing healthy sleep habits in your child’s formative years can help them maintain good sleep through their teen years and for the rest of their lifetime.
Common Sleep Problems for School Age Children
- Nighttime anxiety: School age children don’t have jobs or mortgages to worry about, but they do have anxieties that can keep them up at night. They may be scared about burglars, fires, or even monsters in the closet. Or they may have trouble relaxing and clearing daytime troubles such as bullies, schoolwork, and relationship struggles out of their minds before falling asleep. Children may complain of a stomachache, ask for extra hugs, cry when you leave, or refuse to sleep alone. Talk out their fears with them. Encourage older children to write their anxieties out into a journal so that they don’t have to take them to bed. And items like favourite stuffed animals or even a body pillow can help children feel comforted so they can drift off to sleep.
- Lack of daytime exercise: It’s not uncommon for school age children to spend most of their day sitting at school and the rest on the couch watching TV or at a computer. This results in a lack of activity that can make it more difficult for children to fall asleep. “Exercise produces brain chemicals that promote sleep and relaxation,” says University of Miami associate professor of clinical paediatrics Shahriar Shahzeidi, MD. Inactivity throughout the day means children may struggle to fall asleep at night. But playing sports, playing outside, and limiting screen time can add more activity to your child’s day and improve nighttime sleep.
- Sleepwalking: Sleepwalking is incredibly common among school age children. It is the result of an incomplete sleep stage transition. The body is able to move around, but the brain remains asleep. It usually happens in the first few hours after bedtime. Most children outgrow the condition without treatment, but it’s important to be prepared. Keep floors cleared, lock bedroom windows, and install locks on front and back doors. Gently guide sleepwalking children back to bed.
- Snoring and sleep apnea: Snoring and sleep apnea aren’t just sleep problems for adults. Children with apnea will stop breathing several times during the night, waking to continue breathing. This can keep them from getting important deep sleep. Sleep apnea in children can be triggered by chronic sinus infections, obesity, and the most likely cause: oversized tonsils or adenoids. Children with suspected sleep apnea should be diagnosed in a sleep lab. Most often, the condition is treated by removing tonsils and adenoids. If obesity or sinus infections are the culprit, those conditions are treated to alleviate or eliminate apnea.
- Nightmares: Children of all ages have nightmares, but school age children are particularly susceptible. As they learn more about real life dangers and anxieties, children have more fuel for nightmares. Children with nightmares may wake up crying or scared, interfering with a good night’s sleep — and maybe even haunting them throughout they day as they remember the bad dream. Comfort your child after a nightmare, talk about it if they’d like to do so, and patiently remind them that it is only a dream. Minimising stress and practicing a soothing bedtime routine can help ward off nightmares.
- Too much screen time: School age children often spend a lot of time looking at screens throughout the day. In the computer lab at school, on their phones while texting, at home playing video games, watching TV, or working at a computer. While some screen time is beneficial and essential for learning, too much can interfere with healthy sleep, especially when it occurs before bed. The bright artificial light of screens can confuse your child’s circadian rhythm and convince their brain that it’s still daytime — awake time — when in fact they may just be a few minutes away from bedtime. Encourage physical activity away from screens, limit screen time at home, and turn off all screens at least an hour before bedtime.
Helpful Sleep Tips for School Age Children
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule: As with young children, a consistent sleep schedule is important for healthy sleep habits in school age children. Keeping a regular schedule for sleeping will help children get to sleep on time and get more restful sleep as their bodies are used to going to sleep at the same time. This can also cut down on bedtime resistance, as children know what to expect consistently every night.
- Keep up with bedtime routines: Your school age bedtime routine may not be as involved as it was when your child was younger, but a routine is still important. Straightening up, bathing, brushing teeth, using the bathroom, and reading before bed can help children settle down. It’s also a good idea to make putting phones and devices away well before bedtime a part of your nightly routine.
- Give your child a healthy sleep environment: Your child’s bedroom should be quiet, dark, and cool. They need comfortable bedding and little to no distractions from sleep. That means no TV in their room.
- Limit caffeine consumption: Some school age children drink coffee, but even among those who don’t, caffeine is everywhere. Keep an eye on caffeine consumption not just in coffee but in sodas, chocolate, and more. Excess caffeine consumption should be avoided and no caffeine should be consumed by the late afternoon.
- Avoid scary TV and movies: Older children may be able to handle scary shows any time of day, but in younger children, scary TV and movies can lead to nightmares and trouble falling asleep. Use good judgement when allowing children to watch TV at night and consider age appropriate shows and subjects.
- Limit mobile phones and screen time: The artificial light from mobile phones and other screens can confuse your child’s circadian rhythm and make it difficult to get to sleep. Establish a rule that all screens are turned off at least an hour before bed.
- Avoid hunger-and heavy meals-before bed: A heavy meal right before bed can make children uncomfortable and make it difficult to fall asleep. But going to bed hungry can cause sleep problems as well. Before sending your child off to bed, ask them if they’d like a small, healthy snack.
- Ease your child back into a healthy sleep schedule before school starts: About two weeks before kids return to school, start working on a school year sleep schedule, slowly moving bedtimes and wake times up while still allowing them enough sleep for their age group.
- Consider how your family’s schedule may cut down on restful sleep time: If your family is often out at sporting events until well after dinner time or a parent works a late shift while children stay up to greet them when they come home, you may have challenges to solve. Take a hard look at your family’s daily routine to identify trouble spots that may be making your child’s sleep more difficult.
- Model healthy sleep habits: Children often learn by example, especially at the school age level when they notice your actions and consequences. Be careful to get a good night’s sleep yourself so that children can follow your lead.
- Talk to your child’s doctor if you’re concerned: If your child has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, snores regularly, or has sleep problems that interfere with normal daytime function, don’t hesitate to get help from your child’s doctor.
Healthy Sleep for Teenagers
Teens are young adults, but they don’t yet sleep like adults. Epidemiological studies suggest that most function best with at least nine hours of nightly sleep–yet few sleep that much. Nearly 90 percent of high school students don’t get enough sleep on school nights. This is unfortunate, as teens often have intense physical and mental demands that require adequate sleep. There are serious consequences for teens who don’t sleep enough: poor grades, moodiness, obesity, drowsy driving, even an increased risk for anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic William Dement MD, PhD warns that high school is a danger spot for sleep deprivation — and a huge problem. Without enough sleep, says Dement, teens don’t perform at optimal levels in school, sports, driving, or even in health.
Teens are often not getting enough sleep due to factors beyond their control. Bogged down with homework, home and work responsibilities, and active social lives, teens may not have time to get to bed on time. And some teens suffer from delayed sleep phase syndrome, which makes it difficult to fall asleep before late night hours hit.
Common Sleep Problems for Teenagers
- Demands on time: For many teens, the biggest problem with sleep is there just isn’t enough time to get more than nine hours of sleep every night. They’re balancing demands on their time including early school hours, heavy homework loads, extracurricular activities, jobs, home responsibilities, and more. Parents of teens who aren’t getting enough sleep should carefully examine schedules along with their teen to determine if any changes can be made, including dropping unnecessary activities.
- Circadian rhythm shift: When teens hit puberty, their circadian rhythm shifts to a later bedtime. Teens may be sleepy around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. before puberty, but after puberty, they aren’t sleepy until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. This sleep phase delay can make teens feel like they’re suffering from insomnia and make it difficult to get enough sleep before it’s time to wake up for school.
- Not enough daytime activity: Though teens are usually incredibly busy during the day, they’re often not getting enough exercise. Exercise is important for health and good sleep, so missing out means teens may not be ready to fall asleep when they should. Teens should participate in sports or commit to exercising independently to make sure they get enough physical activity during the day.
- Too much screen time: Teens often spend a lot of time on screens during the day and into the night. They’re working on computers at school, texting with friends, watching TV, and doing homework on laptops at home. They may even take mobile devices to bed. But all of this screen time can interfere with their already confused circadian rhythms, making it difficult to fall asleep on time. Teens should pay attention to how much screen time they have during the day and take care to stop using screens an hour before bed — never taking devices into bed with them.
Helpful Sleep Tips for Teenagers
- Maintain calm time at home before bed: It can be tough to wind down from a busy day, but it’s important for teens to do so. Making the hours (or hour) before bed a calm time can help teens get into a more sleepy mindset and make it easier to fall asleep comfortably.
- Regular sleep time: Sleep thrives on routine, so teens should try to keep a regular sleep time, even on the weekends. Teens should aim to fall asleep within the same hour each night to train themselves to become sleepy at bedtime.
- Keep few evening activities during the week: Teens can quickly become overwhelmed with weeknight activities that keep them wired and up well past their bedtime — even cutting into homework time so they have no choice but to stay up late to finish it. Carefully consider evening activities including sports, extracurricular activities, work, and home responsibilities, and how they have an effect on everyday sleep habits.
- Make teen bedrooms calm and comfortable: Like younger children as well as adults, teens need bedrooms that are calm, cool, dark, and comfortable. Make sure your teen has a good mattress, soft bedding, and a healthy sleep environment free of distractions.
- Maintain a regular exercise routine: Teens should make sure they’re getting enough physical activity every day. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of activity every day for good sleep and overall good health.
- Keep lights low at night: Before bed, teens should keep lights low in order to signal to their brain that it’s just about time to go to sleep. And in the morning, they should let bright lights in to signal the start of the day and alert time.
- Limit caffeine use: Too much caffeine can leave teens wired, especially in the evenings. Encourage teens to avoid consuming too much caffeine during the day and stop caffeine consumption after 4:00pm. This includes soft drink and chocolate.
- Consider the effect of medication on sleep cycles: Some medications such as Ritalin or Adderall can cause insomnia. Talk with your doctor about using these medications and the best time for you to take them.
- Encourage short nap times: Nap times can help sleep deprived teens feel refreshed and supplement nighttime sleep. The key is to make sure that naps are kept short, typically under an hour, to avoid nighttime sleep interference.
- Discourage smoking, alcohol, and drugs: For general health, teens should avoid smoking, alcohol, and drug use. But it is especially important that teens avoid these substances for their sleep health. They can interfere with a teen’s ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep at night.
- Reduce anxiety: Teens often suffer from serious stress and anxiety, especially as they navigate increasingly complicated personal relationships and prepare to graduate and even go to university. For many teens, stress and anxiety aren’t going away — and they can interfere with healthy sleep. Teens can reduce the negative effects of stress and anxiety by practicing stress relieving exercises including meditation, yoga, and prayer.
- Catch up on sleep over the weekend — within reason: While teens should try to maintain a regular sleep schedule every day of the week, weekends do present an opportunity to catch up on a few hours of sleep missed over the course of the week. Teens can safely add a couple extra hours of sleep on weekend mornings – but be careful not to overdo it. Sleeping in too late all weekend can make it difficult to wake up on Monday morning.
This article has been adapted and was originally posted on Tuck.com.