What you need to know about sleep and your child

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Children live busy lives. There’s feeding and mealtimes, bathing and dressing, playgroups and family time; and depending on their age, endless hours putting things in their mouths, exploring body parts or screaming around the backyard. It’s no wonder they need plenty of sleep. So do you how much your child is getting? And is this enough?

Getting little ones to bed is one of the most common concerns for parents. Paradoxically, it can also be the area that slips through the cracks. We either believe they’re doing ok on much too little sleep or the challenges of actually getting them to bed on time make it extremely difficult for even the most well-intentioned parents.

The benefits of sleep: giving your child the edge

We have a confession to make. No one knows exactly what the brain gets up to when we are sleeping. However scientists have some pretty good hypotheses. This includes:

  • Storing information
  • Replacing chemicals
  • Solving problems

What we do know is that sufficient sleep is critical for optimal growth and development, especially for little ones. The following table shows some of the benefits of sufficient sleep, and the dangers of too little.

Sufficient sleep Insufficient sleep
  • Relaxed and happy
  • Optimised physical growth
  • Optimised brain development
  • Improved learning
  • Improved academic performance
  • Improved problem-solving
  • Improved creativity
  • Increased motivation
  • Great concentration
  • Tired and cranky
  • Delayed physical growth and cognitive development
  • Lowered immune system
  • Difficulty concentrating, foggy thinking, becoming forgetful, irritable and prone to mistakes
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Poor emotion regulation – more prone to anger, impulsivity and mood swings
  • Lower academic performance


How much sleep does your actually child need?

Precise sleep needs will vary from child to child. However there are some very good guidelines that can help you to determine whether your child is getting enough sleep.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns should sleep 12 to 18 hours a day. This gradually reduces to 12 to 14 hours for toddlers (ages 1 to 3 years old); and even further to 11 to 13 hours for preschoolers (3 to 5 years old). As you can see, sleep needs gradually reduce with age.

How this breaks down between daytime naps and nighttime sleep also shifts with age. Naps during the day can help a baby or child sleep well at night. Even if your child sleeps well at night, they still need a morning and or afternoon nap until at least around the age of 2.5 to to 3 years. The following guidelines from the NHS (National Health Service) provide a breakdown of this.

1 week: 8 hours (day)/8.5 hours (night)

4 weeks: 6.75 hours (day)/8.75 hours (night)

3 months: 5 hours (day)/10 hours (night)

6 months: 4 hours (day)/10 hours (night)

9 months: 2.75 hours (day)/11.25 hours (night) 

12 months: 2.5 hours (day)/11.5 hours (night)

2 years: 1.25 hours (day)/11.75 hours (night)

3 years: 1 hour (day)/11 hours (night)

4 years: 11.5 hours (night)

5 years: 11 hours (night) 

How much sleep is your child getting?

 If you haven’t documented your child’s sleep, there’s a good chance you don’t know how much they’re getting. The best way to overcome this is to collect sleep data. Keep a sleep diary or a chart, and mark down every time that your child is asleep. Or keep a running tally of the hours they sleep on a notepad.

 Supplement your sleep data by looking for signs of tiredness. The following table shows some of the common signs of insufficient sleep for different ages.

Newborns (0-6 months) Older babies Toddlers and preschoolers
  • Staring
  • Minimal movements or little activity
  • Jerky movements of the arms and legs or rigid limbs
  • Clenched fists
  • Frowning, yawning, grimacing or grizzling
  • Irritability including crying
  • Sucking
  • Trouble feeding or finishing their feed
  • Loss of interest in toys or playing
  • Yawning
  • Separation anxiety that cannot be explained by other factors
  • Irritability including crying, eye rubbing
  • Becoming more or less active
  • Crankiness
  • Clumsy physical movements
  • Taking longer to perform tasks
  • Irritability including crying
  • Intense and enduring negative emotions such as anger, crankiness and frustration

*If a child is older than five and is having regular day naps, this is a sign that he or she may not be sleeping enough at night.

How to increase the amount of sleep your child is getting.

 By looking at your sleep data and comparing it to the recommended hours of sleep for your child’s age, it’s quite possible that you’ll find your child isn’t getting enough.

Difficulties with sleep time and sleeping are common. Babies and children may resist sleep because they’d rather be spending time with you; they’re over-excited, restless or scared; they’re hungry or thirsty or they’re just not in the habit of sleeping at that time yet. Furthermore, around one third of babies experience a disrupted sleeping pattern, making it even harder to get them the sleep they need. 

So if you’re little one isn’t getting the rest they need, here are our tops tips:

  • Prioritize your child’s sleep needs and keep their nap and/or bedtimes sacred.
  • Ensure your child has plenty of fresh air and activity during the day.
  • Be consistent with your sleep routines, having regular times for day naps and night sleeps. Adjust these times as your baby or child grows and develops.
  • Ensure their daytime naps and night-sleeping patterns are compatible. For example, if a daytime nap occurs too late in the afternoon, they will not be tired enough to sleep at night. Or if their afternoon naps don’t occur, they may be too tired to eat their evening meal, and then wake early in the morning.
  • Avoid letting your baby or child become overtired. Try to settle them for sleep before this happens.
  • Sleeping should be comfortable and relaxing. Check your baby or child is clean and dry, is not hungry or thirsty (a hungry baby will wake more often) and is not too hot or cold.
  • Keep the hour before sleep as winding-down time. Activities should be quiet and relaxing. Avoid tickles, wrestles, TV or other exciting activities.
  • Establish a sleep routine. Depending on if this is for a day-nap or night sleeping, it could include things such as brushing teeth, warm bath, baby massage, soft music, wrapping, patting, dummy, reading a story, saying a goodnight prayer etc. Repeat the same routine every time.
  • The room should be darkened for sleeping. If this makes your child anxious then a night-light can help.
  • Avoid drawing out the ‘goodnight chat’ once it is time for sleep.
  • After 12 months some children may benefit from having a comfort toy or object to sleep with (ensure these are safe for sleeping)
  • You may like to keep the door open so that they can hear you moving around the house.
  • Keep the bed only for sleeping, not for playing or relaxing
  • If your baby or child wakes up after only a short time, try to resettle them again

 If your child isn’t getting enough sleep try the above recommendations first. If they’re still not sleeping, then it’s time to consult a sleep specialist. Although challenging, getting enough sleep is one of the cornerstones for development, so it’s worth getting it right.



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