In order to stay healthy, children need plenty of sleep. Not only do they need the right amount, but sleep quality is very important too. It’s not always a simple matter to make sure you child gets the sleep they need so much. It’s not unusual for young children to have bad habits when it comes to bedtime. There are also various sleep disorders which commonly occur in minors. As a parent, it’s understandable that you will want to do everything you can to set your child up with good sleep habits for life.
One of the reasons that improving your child’s sleep can be so difficult is that their requirements are ever-changing. When children age, the total hours they require alter along with their sleeping habits. So, you’ll need to change your approach depending on the stage your child is at. Some children naturally find sleep more challenging than others. If this is the case for you, the task may seem daunting.
That being said, taking time to help your child develop suitable sleep routines is always worthwhile. If you don’t establish this at a young age, you may notice that your child’s mood and behaviour are adversely impacted. Children who don’t get enough quality sleep can also underperform at school and may develop physical or mental health problems.
Parents often ask us just how much sleep their child needs, and how to support them to achieve this target. To help answer this question, we’ve made a guide to explain clearly how to establish good sleeping habits in children. We’ll also look at some of the things that can go wrong with children’s sleep and how to tackle them.
Children’s Sleep Needs by Age
The first thing you will need to establish when building healthy sleep routines is just how much sleep your child actually needs. Individual children differ slightly in how much they need overall and when. However, you can use our quick guide to get an idea of your child’s target.
It’s important to bear in mind that these amounts are a total for the day. Younger children won’t take all of their hours at night like adults- they will also need one or more naps during the day which add to their total. Most children will be ready to drop their last nap by the age of 5 in time for starting school.
Newborn-2 months: 16-18 hours
New babies don’t usually sleep in longer chunks of time. They have tiny stomachs and need to feed regularly. So, expect your baby to sleep no longer than 4 hours at a time, although it’s normal and healthy for them to wake more frequently than this.
Newborns don’t understand the concept of day and night like older babies and children. You can help them develop a circadian rhythm by keeping their environment dark at night and light during the day.
Many exhausted new parents ask how to get their baby to sleep for longer periods. Unfortunately, the answer is that it’s developmentally normal and healthy for tiny babies to wake to feed frequently, even at night. If you’re really struggling, you may find that swaddling or white noise help as they mimic the conditions in the womb.
Make sure you place your baby flat on their back every time you put them down to sleep, even for naps. This is because back sleeping significantly reduces the chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Babies under the age of one should not be given a pillow or comforter and need a very firm crib mattress to keep them safe at night.
2-4 months: 14-16 hours
Before the age of 2 months, any attempts to get your baby into a bedtime routine are likely to be fruitless. Once your baby reaches this age, a very simple routine may start to be effective. What you choose to do is up to you, as long as it’s consistent and doesn’t take too long for your tired baby. Some parents like to give their baby a bath followed by a soothing massage to quiet music.
Naptimes for this age group total around 5 hours across several naps.
4-6 months: 14-15 hours
If you’re lucky, your baby may start sleeping through at this stage. However, don’t worry if they’re still waking several times. Many babies are simply not ready to sleep through the night, and this is developmentally normal. Some parents find that feeding their baby as close to bedtime as possible helps to achieve a longer chunk of sleep at the beginning of the night.
6-12 months: 14 hours
If you haven’t already, it may be time to start teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own. Try putting them down drowsy but still awake. If they cry, reassure them but try to keep them in their crib. Over time, they will learn that it’s safe to fall asleep in their crib without you there. Make sure that you lower your babies mattress if they have started standing and climbing to prevent them escaping and hurting themselves.
1-2 years: 13-14 hours
By this stage, your child should have a well-established routine of bedtime and naps. Consistency is very important for children of this age. It’s a good idea to keep bedtime at the same time each night and keep your bedtime activities the same. Children of this age still need at least 2 hours of nap time on a daily basis.
2-3 years: 12-14 hours
Many children of this age will be ready to make the switch to a normal twin bed. You may also be thinking about toilet training too. It’s perfectly normal for children to wet the bed at this age, and you should buy waterproof sheets or a mattress protector to stop this from damaging their mattress. You can make accidents less frequent by reducing your child’s water intake in the run-up to bedtime, although it’s important to make sure they stay hydrated throughout the day. It’s also sensible to limit screentime for a couple of hours before your child is due to settle down for sleep.
3-5 years: 11-13 hours
Most 5 year olds don’t need a nap in the day, although there are exceptions to this. Nightmares are more common in children aged 3-5 years.
5-12 years: 10-11 hours
Many parents don’t realise that older children still need consistency when it comes to bedtime routines and expetations. If your child’s screentime has increased as they’ve got older, it’s a good idea to limit this a couple of hours before bed. Your child may be taking part in extracurricular activities and social engagements more than ever now. However, make sure that you continue to prioritize their sleep.
Establishing Healthy Routines
According to the experts at Sleep Aim, all children benefit from consistent and predictable sleep routines. In fact, these routines will continue to be important throughout their lives, as consistent sleep routines can help combat adult insomnia. This can make bedtime less stressful for the whole family.
Try not to overcomplicate sleep routines for children. A simple routine is easier to maintain. The most important thing is that you do the same thing every bedtime and that the routine meets the needs of your individual child.
While it’s important to recognise your child’s individuality, there are some basics that make up a successful sleep routine. Make sure that all the activities leading up to bedtime are calm and don’t cause your child to become too stimulated. Therefore, quiet activities like reading stories are preferable to gaming or watching TV. Read on for our top tips on crafting a soothing bedtime routine for your little one:
Keep bedtime consistent
If your child goes to bed at a similar hour every day, their body will gradually learn to expect to sleep at this time. This can help avoid problems with falling asleep. That being said, you don’t want to be so rigid that your child misses out on staying up a bit later to socialize on special occasions as a treat. However, try to do this only occasionally. Regularly allowing a significantly later bedtime can disrupt your child’s sleeping patterns. So, try not to fall into the trap of allowing your child to stay up past their bedtime every weekend.
Limit screen time
The screens on modern devices such as smart phones and tablets emit blue light, which can cause insomnia in children. So, have a rule that these devices aren’t used for a couple of hours before your child is due to go to bed.
Only allow sleeping in bed
If you keep your child’s bed for sleeping only, they will soon build up a strong association between their bed and nodding off. This can make it easier to fall asleep. So, don’t allow your child to watch TV, game or read for long periods sitting in bed. You could provide an easy chair for this purpose instead, or only allow these activities in communal areas of the home.
Have a bedtime countdown
Many parents tell us that their children find it difficult to stop an enjoyable activity and get ready for bed. You can reduce upset and conflict by giving them a 5 minute warning before it’s time to stop. For younger children and those with ASD, a digital or sand timer can reinforce this by serving as a visual reminder that bedtime is coming. Be consistent and don’t allow your child to negotiate- they need to understand that bedtime is not optional.
Limit eating and drinking before bed
If your child drinks lots of fluids before bed, they are more likely to experience bedwetting or need to use the bathroom at night, disrupting their sleep. If your child eats sugary of caffeinated foods in the lead up to bedtime, this can also make it harder for them to nod off.
In particular, don’t allow sugary drinks after they’ve brushed their teeth as this can cause decay. However, ensure that your child has enough to eat and drink throughout the day to avoid hunger or dehydration.
Use objects as sleep cues
All of us are familiar with the image of a small child taking their teddy bear to bed. Comforting objects can help children cope with separation anxiety at bedtime. These items along with familiar pyjamas and blankets can act as powerful sleep cues to show your child that it’s sleep time if you use them consistently every night.
Try soothing activities
Instead of stimulating activities such as gaming before bed, try winding down with your child by doing something quiet and calm. Reading books, coloring and listening to soft music can help to signal that it’s bedtime, provided you do them every day.
Don’t forget bathtime
Many adults find that a warm bath or shower can help prepare their body for sleep, and the same trick works with children. This works because your child’s temperature will rise in the bath and fall sharply when they get out. This causes them to feel sleepy. You can purchase special aromatherapy products that are safe for children to use at bathtime with soothing fragrances such as lavender and chamomile.
Selecting The Right Bedding for Babies and Toddlers
There are lots of choices available when it comes to choosing bedding for small children. However, many of the more stylish options come with a hefty price tag. You may be tempted to splash the cash on gorgeous bed linen for your little one, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you can afford it.
However, you can get everything your child needs to sleep comfortably and safely on a budget. The most important thing is that the bedding is safe for children to use and feels comfortable to sleep on. Here are a few key features you should look out for to guarantee you are spending your money wisely:
Stick to basics for babies
If you browse stores stocking baby bedding, you’ll notice a wide array of tempting, cushy-looking products. However, some of these products could actually be hazardous for babies as they could ride up over their face and obstruct their breathing. Lots of thick bedding can also cause your baby to overheat, which is a risk factor for SIDS.
It’s important for new parents to understand that small babies require very little bedding. Comforters and pillows aren’t suitable until your child is at least a year old, and they don’t need them to feel comfortable.
One of the safest options for keeping your baby warm is a baby sleeping bag. These have straps over your baby’s shoulders that stop the bag from riding up over their face while they sleep. You may also consider buying swaddle wraps to help your baby feel secure, and many parents find they help their baby sleep better. If you go down the swaddle route, make sure you use a specially-made wrap or breathable blanket that won’t cause your baby to overheat. You should stop swaddling once your baby is able to roll over.
Opt for hypoallergenic bedding
Although feather bedding can feel comfortable and be safe for toddlers and older children, you may find that they cause allergies which can disturb sleep. This may be a particular problem for children with asthma. If this is an issue, look for bedding that’s labelled as hypoallergenic. There are synthetic and natural organic options available depending on your preferences.
Check the thread count
If you can afford it, try to select cotton items with as high a thread count as possible. These tend to feel more comfortable against your child’s skin. While you’ll have to spend more initially, you may actually save money in the long run as cotton with a high thread count lasts longer and won’t need replacing so soon.
Involve your child
You can easily find lovely children’s bedding cover sets, even if you’re on a budget. Manufacturers nowadays try to make their products appealing to young children by making them bright and colourful. Involving your child in selecting their own bedding is a good way to make bedtime more fun and enjoyable.
Buy a mattress protector
Almost all young children wet the bed from time to time, especially if they are in the process of toilet training. There is also a risk of vomit damaging the mattress if your child gets sick. Bodily fluids soaking into your child’s mattress is a problem because it can cause a build-up of harmful bacteria and smell unpleasant. The moisture can also cause mold and mildew, in which case the mattress will need to be replaced.
Fortunately, you can purchase waterproof mattress protectors to make sure your child’s bed remains sanitary. This will also save you money on replacing a soiled, unhygienic mattress. Another benefit of using a mattress protector is that they speed up the process of changing a wet or soiled bed, which saves you time and means your child isn’t sat up waiting for a dry bed to go back to sleep.
Night Lights for Children
Most children sleep better in a very dark room. This is because complete darkness signals to the brain that it’s bedtime. During the summer months when it gets dark late, and for people that live in urban areas with street lighting on all night, you may find that the only way to achieve total darkness in your child’s bedroom is to use blackout curtains or blinds.
That being said, it’s not uncommon for younger children to feel scared of the dark and struggle to fall asleep. If your child is anxious about sleeping in a very dark room, you may find that using a night light disturbs their sleep far less than trying to fall asleep feeling fearful. It’s best to use a light with a dim bulb so their room is still as dark as possible while alleviating your child’s anxiety.
Sleep Disorders in Children
Some children are lucky enough to go through their whole childhood without experiencing any issues with their sleep. However, sleep problems in children are very common, and the likelihood is that your child will have trouble sleeping at some point before they reach adulthood.
The good news is that most common childhood sleep problems can be improved or cured using self-help measures or with the help of a paediatrician or other healthcare professional. It may also be the case that your child simply grows out of their sleep problems in the end. However, there are times where a sleep problem or disorder has a greater impact and requires more treatment.
As a parent, it’s important to be familiar with common childhood sleep problems so you can be alert to possible symptoms in your child. Here is our guide to the ones you need to know about:
Most children experience bad dreams or nightmares at some point or other. They are most common in young children. They may cause the child to wake up in distress and can make them anxious to go to bed. Your child is more likely to have nightmares if they have had an upsetting or distressing experience, during times of change such as starting school, or if they’ve been exposed to upsetting or frightening content on television. However, there will often be no identifiable reason for your child’s nightmares.
If your child has nightmares, give them plenty of comfort and reassure them that the dream isn’t real. They may want to talk about the dream with you in detail. Some children will find it reassuring if you ‘check’ under the bed or in the wardrobes to assure them their room is safe.
Although nightmares often can’t be avoided, maintaining consistent and comforting bedtime routines can help. Try to make sure that your child isn’t watching scary TV shows or reading frightening stories and try to limit screen time before bed.
Night terrors are less common than nightmares. During a night terror, a child will appear very frightened and may scream and thrash around. This can be very alarming and upsetting for parents to see. However, the child is almost always fast asleep and will be unaware. Although you may want to wake your child up to stop the night terror, being woken like this could cause them distress. It’s best to allow the night terror to pass on its own. Supervise your child to ensure they don’t accidentally injure themselves. In most cases, your child will re-enter a deep sleep without you having to do anything to help.
Many adults are familiar with insomnia, and it can affect children too. This condition refers to difficulty falling or staying asleep. Many children only have trouble falling asleep for a short period or for the odd night now and then. However, for some children their insomnia will become chronic.
Insomnia is quite a common sleep problem in both children and adults. If your child is struggling, following the tips in this article to implement a consistent sleep routine may be helpful. However, chronic insomnia in children should be assessed by their healthcare provider. Occasionally, insomnia can be a sign of an underlying health condition. Your doctor will suggest measures to help your child fall asleep more easily. However, sleeping medications aren’t routinely prescribed to children.
Sleep apnea is one of the less common sleep disorders affecting children. This condition can be extremely serious. Children and adults with sleep apnea experience lapses in breathing during the night which an interrupt healthy sleep. If you notice unusual breathing patterns or frequent snoring that’s not caused by a cold, you should suspect sleep apnea.
If you are worried that your child might have sleep apnea, you should take them to the doctor as soon as possible. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to issues with learning and behaviour, delayed growth and heart conditions. Some children with sleep apnea can be treated by surgically removing their adenoids or tonsils. This can help to reduce airway restriction. Some children will need to use a machine to keep their breathing regular during the night. As excess weight and obesity can cause or contribute to sleep apnea, helping them to lose weight may help. You should consult your doctor to help you devise an age-appropriate weight loss programme for your child.
Sleep walking and talking
Although some adults continue to sleep walk and talk, it’s more common in children. This isn’t usually anything to worry about unless it’s so frequent that it’s causing daytime tiredness. Occasionally, a child may also do something hazardous in their sleep like try to leave the house. It’s a good idea to maintain a clear floor so they don’t fall over and to secure any external doors and windows. Otherwise, just gently help your child back to bed.
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
Restless leg syndrome is a sleep condition that causes unpleasant sensations in a person’s legs. This may feel like itching, burning or crawling. Children with the condition feel the impulse to move their legs around to try and get rid of the feeling. This leads to interrupted sleep and difficulty nodding off.
The condition has various causes. In some cases, low iron levels are to blame. Some children are also genetically predisposed to RLS. If low iron levels are the cause, dietary supplements may offer relief. Other helpful treatments include massage or sleeping under a special weighted mattress. You should take your child to the doctor if their RLS is having a detrimental effect on their sleep, as they may need to be treated with medication.
How to Choose The Right Crib Mattress
A crib mattress is arguably the most important thing you will buy for your baby’s bedroom. Young babies spend around 50% of their lives asleep in their crib. The right crib mattress provides protection against SIDS. It will also support their tiny body to grow and develop.
The most common types of mattresses for babies are foam or innerspring. Some parents prefer innerspring because they allow air to circulate, which can prevent overheating during the night. However, they are much heavier than foam mattress. They are also generally more expensive.
There are various organic mattresses available nowadays. Generally, you will need to spend more to get a 100% organic crib mattress. They come with the benefit of bring made from natural materials and are hypoallergenic. So, you may feel it’s worth shelling out If your baby has allergies triggered by bedding or are asthmatic.
Some crib mattresses are very expensive. However, you don’t need to break the bank to get a good one. As long as it meets the criteria below, you can be assured that it meets your baby’s needs:
Many parents are surprised by the fact that crib mattresses feel very firm or even hard. While this may not sound very comfortable, your baby has very different needs to you when it comes to selecting a mattress. Firm mattresses prevent SIDS because the baby’s face can’t sink into it. Their light bodies also need more support to develop properly.
You should try to buy a mattress that’s water resistant or, even better, waterproof. It’s almost certain that bodily fluids will get onto your baby’s mattress at some point. This can cause a build-up of harmful bacteria. Excess moisture can also cause mold or mildew to grow in the mattress. A waterproof or water-resistant cover will help to protect the mattress. If your chosen mattress doesn’t have one, you should invest in a mattress protector.
Fits flush to the crib
Any crib mattress you buy must fit tightly in the crib. If there are gaps, your baby could get stuck. This can cause injury or even suffocation. As a rule, you shouldn’t be able to squeeze more than two fingers between the side of the crib and your baby’s mattress.
Breathability is important in crib mattresses because the stop your baby overheating. This helps to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Are Second-Hand Crib Mattresses Safe?
We usually recommend purchasing a brand-new mattress for babies. That being said, budget restrictions may tempt you to consider using a second-hand mattress if someone offers one to you. If the mattress is in good condition, there isn’t a problem with using it.
You should only take a second-hand mattress from people you know and trust, as you will know whether they have kept it hygienic. Check the mattress carefully to make sure it isn’t sagging, stained or smelly. Sagging mattresses aren’t safe and supportive for babies. A stained or smelly mattress could carry dangerous bacteria and will be unpleasant for your baby to sleep on.
How to Select the Right Mattress for a Child
Generally, twin or XL twin mattresses are a suitable size for children. XL twin mattresses are especially suitable for tall teenagers who don’t have room for a bigger bed. So, it might be a good idea to buy one right from the start, especially if wither parent is very tall. This saves you needing to replace the mattress or bed frame if your child suddenly shoots upwards. There’s no reason why a child shouldn’t sleep in a double bed, but you may not have the money or space to make this feasible.
You’ll find that you have the same range of options available in twin sizes as you would for a larger mattress. Innerspring mattresses are god for children because they provide great support to their growing bodies and are breathable to prevent overheating.
Memory foam mattresses are also suitable for young children and teenagers. These mattresses provide good support and can conform to your child’s body shape. They may find a memory foam mattress especially comfortable if they are side sleepers.
How Can I Protect my Baby Against SIDS?
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) refers to incidents where a baby younger than one year old dies in their sleep with no obvious cause. As this usually happens in their crib, it is sometimes referred to as crib death. Although this can make new parents feel very anxious, SIDS is fortunately very rare. However, there are certain measures you should take to protect your baby:
Putting your baby down to sleep on their back is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent SIDS. This stops their face from sinking into the mattress and causing suffocation. In the past, parents were often advised to put their babies to sleep on their front to avoid them choking if they vomited in the night. However, it’s now known that sleeping on their back doesn’t increase the risk of this happening.
Some parents become alarmed when their baby learns to roll over and chooses to sleep on their stomach. Once your baby is able to roll from front to back and vice versa, the risk of SIDS reduces and it’s fine to leave them on their front if they roll over on their own. However, you should still put them down on their back at the beginning of the night.
Keep the crib clear
Although it may be tempting to place cute teddies, fluffy blankets and bumpers in your baby’s crib, these can cause suffocation and strangulation in babies. It’s safest to keep your baby’s crib completely clear of these items. It’s safe for your baby to sleep with a small stuffed animal once they’re a year old.
Night-time overheating is known to be a risk factor for SIDS. Ideally, you should keep your baby’s room somewhere between 16-20 degrees Celsius. If the weather is very hot and you don’t have air conditioning, you may need to put your baby down to sleep in light pyjamas or just their diaper.
We are often asked questions about children’s sleep by concerned parents. Here are some of the most common questions with expert answers:
Q: What is the best mattress for a baby?
A: There is no one mattress that can be categorically stated to be ‘best’ for a baby’s crib. As long as the mattress is firm, breathable and fits snugly in the crib, it is suitable for your baby to sleep on.
Q: Are crib bumpers safe?
A: You shouldn’t ever use crib bumpers, although unfortunately many retailers still advertise and stock them. Crib bumpers pose a suffocation risk. Your baby could also get the strings wrapped around their neck which can be very dangerous.
Q: Should I swaddle my baby?
A: Swaddling is safe as long as you do it properly, and many parents find their baby sleeps better when swaddled. Use a thin, breathable receiving blanket or a cotton swaddle wrap to prevent overheating. Make sure that the swaddle can’t ride up over their face. To prevent a condition called hip hyperplasia, make sure their legs are free to move around.
Q: How can I help my child get to sleep?
A: One of the best ways to help your child get to sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime and sleep routine. Limiting screen time and caffeinated food and beverages before bed can also help.
Q: How can I stop my child having nightmares?
A: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to stop your child having nightmares, and they will probably grow out of them in due course. In the meantime, offer plenty of comfort and reassurance and make sure they aren’t viewing any frightening content. A consistent bedtime routine can also help.
Q: My child wets the bed. What can I do?
A: Bed wetting is common in children under five, especially during toilet training. Most will eventually stop wetting the bed in due course. You can protect the mattress using a mattress protector and limit their fluid intake before bed. If the bed wetting is very frequent or they don’t grow out of it, consult your healthcare provider.
Q: Should I buy my child a night light?
A: Generally, children sleep better in complete darkness. However, if your child is afraid of the dark, they may actually sleep better with a night light as anxiety can make it harder to sleep. It’s best to choose one with a dim bulb to prevent sleep disturbance.
Q: How can I stop my child falling out of bed?
A: If your child is very young and keeps falling out of bed, they may not be ready, and you might want to move them back to their crib and try again in a few months. You can also buy guard rails to prevent falling or place padded mats next to the bed.
Q: Can children take sleeping tablets?
A: Sleeping medications aren’t usually recommended for children. You should never give your child any sleeping medications unless they have been approved and prescribed by a doctor.
Q: Can I give my child over-the-counter or herbal sleep aids?
A: There are various sleep aids that you can buy from a store or pharmacy. Some are herbal, so many parents believe they are safe as they are natural. However, just because a medicine is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that they don’t have powerful effects.
Furthermore, many are only approved for adults and the dosage may be too high for children. You should always ask your doctor whether a sleep remedy is suitable for your child. They will be able to advise you about safety and dosage.
Q: When should I take my child to the doctor about a sleep problem?
A: If your child is having persistent problems falling or staying asleep, you should take them to the doctor. In particular, consult your doctor if your child has restless legs, snores frequently or breaths in an irregular pattern while they sleep. These symptoms can be signs of an underlying health condition.
The Bottom Line
We hope that this sleep guide has helped you gain an understanding of how to encourage healthy sleep in your baby or child. In particular, creating a routine and sleep environment that suits your child can help them to get the right amount of quality sleep and prevent sleep problems starting. This will help to promote good physical and mental health. Hopefully, these good habits will set them up well for maintaining healthy sleep into adulthood. Remember, always consult your doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s sleeping habits or patterns.