Parents and those who support young children will benefit from the information on this page. There are effective and reliable practices to develop healthy sleep patterns and can be adapted to family life.
Boundaries and expectations
Children feel safe and secure when they have clear, firm boundaries. This is especially true at bedtime. Again, the consistent, predictable bedtime routine applies. You need to be clear on your expectations for your children at bedtime and during the night.
Toddlers and preschool aged children especially like to test boundaries and like to feel they have choice and are listened to. It can help to think of ways to offer choice within boundaries.
For example: “We’re going to read 2 stories before bed, which of these books would you like to read tonight?”
If your child then gets upset because they want more stories before bed, you can be firm but kind. For example: “I know you love story time. We can’t read more now because it’s time to go to sleep. I’m going to take these books downstairs with me so that we can read them tomorrow morning.”
Positive sleep associations for children
Sleep problems occur for various reasons. To ensure good sleep, children need a consistent approach to bedtime and sleep.
- We need to give the brain positive links to sleep. This includes a predictable bedtime routine and the same night time conditions all night long.
- When children learn their sleep skills, they will make associations with things, surroundings and sounds that act as prompts for sleep. These associations can be helpful and sustainable, or they become hard to maintain. For example, a special toy, comforter or dummy.
- Sometimes these associations are dependent on a parent or difficult to sustain. For example, requiring a parent to stay in the room until asleep, or needing to be cuddled to sleep when children wake during the night.
- Parents and care givers can help a child learn to have sleep associations where they don’t necessarily need to have an adult’s presence during the night.
- The response to settling at bedtime or for any night time wake ups is very important. Responses will either make the wakeful behaviour more likely to continue or will help the child learn better sleep skills.
- We all wake during the night. Most don’t notice this. For those who wake fully, bear in mind what you do will affect the chance of the behaviour being repeated.
It is normal to find it harder to get back to sleep in the early morning. These tips can help to stretch out your child’s sleep however this is rarely a quick fix.
- Is your child hungry? Have they eaten enough the day before? This is particularly important for children at nursery. They have a main lunch time meal and snacky tea. They will want something else when they get home. Avoid sugary snacks, breadsticks and hummous, banana, toast, egg, cereal are all good options.
- How light is the room? It doesn’t need to be completely dark but black out blinds will help.
- Temperature: make sure your child is not too hot or too cold, especially in the winter.
- A sunrise and sunset clock gives your child a visual cue when it is time to start the day. Have a realistic start time which you can adjust once they understand the concept. If your child is waking at 5am, start by setting it for 5.30am. Treat any waking before the clock light comes on as the middle of the night. Once the light comes on you can start the day. When they are happy to wait you can lengthen out the time by 10 minutes every 4 to 5 days. Anything from 6am is an acceptable time to start the day, especially in the summer months.
- Do not let your child overcompensate for an early start with extra day time sleep. A normal day time sleep can be brought forward by 20 to 30 minutes but don’t add on extra nap time. You want them to consolidate that sleep during the night.
- Keep any interaction to a minimum and avoid eye contact. When you get your child up to start the day, make it an event so they know the social cues to look for.
Naps and dropping naps
Children will be ready to drop all naps anywhere between 18 months and 4 years old. Although most children tend to drop the nap between 2 and 3 years old.
Signs that your child might be ready to drop their nap can be them resisting the nap, struggling to fall asleep at bedtime and early morning wake ups. Adjusting to no naps during the day can be tricky at first for your toddler. During this transition, expect that your child will be grumpier in the afternoons. You might also consider whether bedtime should be brought forward a little earlier at this point.
If your child still naps, ensure that they never nap 4 hours before bedtime. This is to protect their night time sleep. It’s also a good idea to ensure that naps do not last too long. If a child naps for several hours during the day, they will struggle to sleep well at night. Usually between 1 and 2 hours is a good nap length.
For older children, if they nap, make sure it’s no later than 3pm, as it could affect night time sleep. A nap should be no longer than 90 minutes. If children regularly need daytime naps, they may not be getting enough sleep in the night. If in doubt, seek advice.