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Good Sleep Habits For Children

Jul 28, 20216 minutes read time
Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • Sleeping is vital for kids' health, growth and development. It’s so important to set good sleep habits for kids at every stage of their development.
  • A good sleep routine and consistent rules will help your kids sleep better. Don’t let them call out, sneak into your bed, or try to stay with you.
  • Nightmares happen to everyone but can be especially scary for kids. Help them through it, without making a big deal.
  • A good wake up routine can help set you up for success for the rest of the day.

Parents expect to deal with sleep issues when kids are babies, but are shocked when it becomes an issue well into the preschool years and beyond. Whether it’s bedwetting, fear of the dark, or nightmares, there are lots of reasons your little ones might need your help in the night.

While the occasional interrupted evening won’t hurt anyone, it’s important that your kids regularly get enough sleep. Learning the ins and outs of their sleep needs will help you ace parenting and keep your children happy and settled throughout the day.

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Why is sleep important for kids?

You’ve probably noticed that when your kids are tired they fight more than usual, are more emotional, and throw tantrums at the drop of a hat. In their defense, you’re not your best self when you’re sleep-deprived either. Who is?

Sleep not only affects mood and behavior, but helps with children’s health, growth and development. When they don’t get enough sleep, it can impact their appetite, attention and energy levels.

Sleep problems later in life have been linked to issues with immunity, mental health, heart health and academic performance. So setting up good sleep practices for children at a young age will help them down the track too.

How much sleep do children need?

The amount of sleep children need reduces as they get older, but it’s important that they get the recommended number of hours for their age group.

Keep in mind that, like adults, children have different sleep needs. So while one of your kids may need 12 hours of sleep at a certain age, another might only need 10. As long as they’re healthy and happy, don’t worry about it.

Preschool sleep needs

Preschool aged children, 3 to 5 years old, typically need around 11 to 13 hours of sleep each day. This may include a daytime nap, which many kids still need at this age.

Primary school sleep needs

Kids aged 6 to 13 generally need about 9 to 11 hours of sleep each night.

Teenagers’ sleep needs

14 to 18-year-olds need around 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.

Young child sleeping

Why is my child not sleeping well?

Just like us, kids go through periods of poor sleep sometimes. Unlike us, it’s hopefully not because they stayed up late binge-watching something on Netflix.

Your child might be struggling due to:

  • Not having an ideal bedtime routine or sleep environment
  • Not eating well or getting enough physical activity
  • Having nightmares or night terrors
  • Being unwell
  • Wetting the bed
  • Experiencing anxiety at bedtime or separation anxiety
  • Wanting you to stay with them until they fall asleep, or coming into your bed during the night.

In some cases, they may not be sleeping well because of something more serious, like:

  • Sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea
  • Developmental disorders such as autism
  • Physical or mental health conditions.

If you’re concerned about your kid’s sleep, you can always talk to a doctor to rule out any issues like this.

Setting a bedtime routine for children

Making sure you have your bedtime routine down pat will encourage healthy sleep routines in kids of all ages. A good routine will help them know what to expect, reduce misbehavior and signal to their bodies that it’s time to wind down for sleep.

Try to keep the evening routine consistent, with activities that promote restfulness and ‘winding down’. That means avoiding stimulating activities like screen time an hour before bedtime. While it might take a few weeks for your child to get used to the routine, keep at it – consistency will win in the end.

Here’s an example of what a bedtime routine for school aged children might look like:

  • 6:00: Screen time ends for the day.
  • 7:15: Brush teeth, go to the toilet.
  • 7:30: Quiet time in bed: read a book, tell a story, have a cuddle.
  • 8:00: Bedtime (lights out).

What to do if your child insists on you staying with them or calls out?

Some children insist on having parents with them until they are asleep, or constantly call out. We don’t have to tell you how quickly this can start to grate, especially after a long day.

The key is to set up a good bedtime routine and have quality time beforehand. When it is time for lights-out, it can be helpful to remind children of the rules of bedtime (e.g. to stay in bed until morning and to lay quietly).

You can always promise to come back and check in on them if they’re being good. Leave them be and if they’re quiet for five minutes, drop back in and praise them for following the rules. Next time you leave, wait ten minutes before returning. Keep stretching out the intervals until they nod off.

This strategy gives children motivation to follow the rules and often stops them calling out or coming out of bed. If your child does call out, make sure to ignore them (except if they need the toilet), and if a child comes out of their room — return them immediately.

What to do if my child wakes up at night?

Everyone wakes up several times during the night. Children can often settle themselves back to sleep, and not remember it in the morning. However, they may start to regularly wake up and need you in the night.

Here are some ways to help your child if they’re continually waking up at night.

  • Predict their needs – If your child regularly needs a drink of water, at 10pm consider putting a glass beside their bed. If they’re afraid of the dark, put a night light in their room.
  • Give them minimal attention – Your children may call out for you in the night. Teach them that they can’t demand your attention at this time by practicing planned ignoring, or by speaking very little, in a calm, quiet voice if you do go to them.
  • Don’t allow sneak-ins – If your kid has a habit of sneaking into your bed during the middle of the night it can be helpful to put a bell on your door handle, so you wake up when they sneak in. Always return children to their beds and encourage them to stay until morning.
  • Comfort them when needed – If your child’s upset by a scary dream, or if they feel anxious, keep them in their bed and offer support to go back to sleep. You might encourage them to cuddle a special toy in the night if they feel scared.
  • Stay calm and consistent – Getting angry or upset will only make your child upset too or give them the attention they want. Resist the urge to raise your voice and calmly put them back to bed, reassuring them that they’re okay.
Young girl sleeping in bed

Managing night terrors and nightmares

Night terrors usually occur in the first four hours of sleep. Your child usually won’t wake up from one, but they may seem extremely upset. You could wake to them screaming and thrashing around, but they won’t remember it in the morning. It’s wild! Managing a night terror essentially involves waiting it out. Avoid waking your child, because this could confuse and disorient them. Instead, stay calm and keep interaction to a minimum.

Nightmares tend to happen between midnight and 4am. They occur in a lighter stage of sleep and can be very vivid, with children often waking up and remembering the scary content of the dream.

Why does my child get nightmares?

In some cases, nightmares can be related to trauma, stress or dealing with change. More often, they don’t really happen for any reason at all. Your child might have an overactive imagination, or their mind might be warping memories and events, adding a scary and unsettling twist.

There’s no guaranteed way to stop nightmares from happening. However, limiting exposure to scary images, games, television and books can help. Remember, what your child considers scary (i.e. a photo of their Great Aunt Linda ) might not be what you find scary (i.e. those grey hairs you noticed in the mirror – terrifying). Try to identify what seems to trigger bad dreams for your child, and address it if you can.

What to do when my child has a nightmare

Children can be very upset by nightmares, but parents can be a huge source of comfort. Be there for them and explain that they’re safe. Young children may struggle to understand the concept of a ‘dream’, so explain that what happened in their nightmare wasn’t real.

You may need to check the cupboard or under the bed for monsters, or flex your muscles to prove that you can deal with any baddies. Making a joke could help lighten the mood, or a kiss and cuddle might help your child relax. Stay calm, comfort them, and put them back to sleep as soon as possible.

Waking up and starting the day well

How you and your kids get up and going in the morning could affect their sleep routines. Here are some tips for getting off on the right foot.

  • Wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends). This will keep the daily routine consistent, ensuring that your kids get the right amount of sleep.
  • Try to get some daylight first thing in the morning. This triggers melatonin production in the body, which helps with sleep.
  • Encourage kids to play and do activities outside of their bedroom where possible. This will help associate their bedroom with sleep, not activity.
  • Ask them how their sleep was and how they feel. If your child still seems tired in the morning, they may not have had enough sleep. They could be waking up in the night without you knowing it, resulting in poor sleep quality overall.
  • Spend time together. Spending quality time with your child during the day will make them feel loved and happy, so they’ll be less likely to want your attention at sleep time.

Sleep can be a sore point for many parents. It’s frustrating battling your kids’ sleep issues, but keep in mind the long-term benefits of helping them get enough sleep. And the short-term benefits too — like happier, cuddlier kids during the day.

By sticking to a regular bedtime routine and following some of the tips we’ve covered here, everyone in your house will be sleeping like a baby in no time. WAIT! Not like a baby… Babies wake up a lot. More like a happy child who can sleep through the night. That’s the dream.

If you have concerns about any aspect of your child’s sleep, please talk with your general practitioner or pediatrician.

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