Sleeping

The first years of life for a child are the foundation for later growth, development and learning.

Having a baby is wonderful and exciting and one of the most tiring times in a parent’s life. So it’s no wonder that anyone caring for a baby thinks about how to get enough sleep.

As a parent, it is not just important to get enough sleep for yourself, it is also essential that your baby has enough sleep.

By six months old, only about 50 per cent of babies sleep through the night. At one year of age, close to 40 per cent of babies still wake at night. It is not until about age three that most children are confident enough to sleep through most nights.

‘Sleeping through the night’ also means something different to babies than to adults. While some babies may sleep for longer, having five hours sleep between midnight and 5.00 am is considered sleeping through the night.

How much sleep do children need?

Birth to three months

  • Newborns generally wake frequently, every one to three hours, needing a feed and attention.
  • Sleep needs change quickly as they grow. Many babies sleep 14–20 hours a day in the first weeks.
  • By six weeks, 25 per cent of babies are sleeping a straight five-hour stretch, not necessarily at night.
  • By three months, most babies have longer times awake during the day and longer sleep times at night. At three months, babies go into a deep sleep more quickly than when they were younger.

Three to six months

  • Some babies have two or three longish sleeps during the day, while others just have short naps.
  • Some may sleep 12 hours without interruption; few manage eight hours. However, remember that five hours is considered a night’s sleep.
  • Many wake fairly regularly, usually for food.

Six months to three years

  • Some babies and toddlers sleep through the night.
  • Many still wake, often more than once, at night.
  • At two–three years, 41 per cent of young children are still waking once or twice a night, with a few waking more often.

Three to six years

  • A wide range of sleep patterns is normal. If your preschool child is still waking at night, you are not alone!
  • Most children need about 10–12 hours of sleep at night.
  • Bedtimes vary a lot. Some children go to bed at 6.30 pm; others stay up until 9.30 pm or later. Often those who go to bed later wake up later.
  • Young children may still need a daytime sleep as well, but by preschool age only a few are still having this.

Common issues

For young children, some of the most common problems with sleep are night waking and settling issues.

Night waking

This can affect children from six months to four years of age. It is important to point out that waking at night is normal for the very young; it is only if this pattern continues into middle childhood that it can be a sign that there may be some issues.

Most children sleep better if they know that a parent or carer is close by. It may help to have your baby in a cot next to your bed for the first six to twelve months.

Even by the age of three–six months, many babies will wake at night at least once for food. Some children who have previously slept through the night may begin to wake up as their appetite grows.

From six months–three years old, separation anxiety is usually the most common reason for children to wake and cry at night. Your child will usually go back to sleep if you stay with them. It is also important to keep in mind that many children suffer from earaches and teething pains during this time which can be another reason they wake at night.

Three- to six-year-olds will still wake during the night fairly regularly. Their inner confidence to feel secure when parents or carers are not around is still developing at this stage in their life. Children may also struggle to sleep if they are sick, lonely, sad, or frightened. This can be caused by big changes such as starting school, family tensions, or moving house.

Settling

For a child, going to bed can mean being alone and leaving behind all the interesting things that are happening in the house. The child may well be fearful of being left alone. Your child could also be overly excited which makes it hard to sleep, or could be worried or frightened by something that has happened to them during the day. All of these reasons can contribute to settling problems—one of the most common difficulties in getting your child to sleep.

If your child has settling difficulties, try putting your chair by the cot or bed and pat your baby. If they cry when you stop, change the timing of the patting—slow it down and make it softer, then just rest your hand on their body.

You can also try gradual separation if you want your child to learn to sleep on their own. Put them in the cot and pat or sing to help them go to sleep. When they have become used to that, try sitting by the cot and singing or reading aloud, but not patting. Then move your chair a little way from the cot. Keep gradually withdrawing farther until you are outside the door but the baby still knows you are there. Gradual separation takes time, but it is a way that reassures your baby while they go to sleep.

Sleep association and bedtime rituals

Often, having a relaxing ritual at bedtime is important. Playing games with your child or letting them watch television or screens right before bed usually results in overexcitement. Try winding things down with a bedtime story or song, or even some soft and quiet music. It helps to establish these as routines and rituals so children become familiar and associate them with going to sleep.

To ensure your children feel less lonely and more relaxed in bed, it can be handy to leave on a night light, let them have a cuddly toy, or to leave the door open.

Remember, it is perfectly normal for babies to have some sleeping issues and for this to continue for some children up to around six years of age. Helping your child feel safe, comfortable and ready for bed is the simplest way to help them settle. If you are still concerned, seek help from your paediatrician or early childhood nurse.

Quality-assured resources to purchase

The ECA Online Shop offers a variety of books and resources for parents that have all been quality-assured by early childhood experts. Below are our recommendations for sleeping.

  • Everyday learning about sleep, by parenting expert Pam Linke, will help you to understand about babies’ and young children’s sleep needs and how best to help them, as well as helping you to get enough sleep too.
  • Rainforest lullaby, by Sally Odgers and Lisa Stewart is a children’s book that has calming language and a soothing storyline.

References

Centre for Community Child Health. (2006). Settling and sleep problems. Available from www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/PR_Set_Sleep_all.pdf.

Linke, P. (2007). Everyday learning about sleep. Everyday Learning Series, 7(1).

Raising Children Network. (2011). What works with persistent sleep problems? Available from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/persistent_sleep_problems.html.

Raising Children Network. (2013). Persistent sleep problems in children and teenagers. Available from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/persistent_sleep_problems_children.html.

Raising Children Network. (2015). Guide to solving baby sleep problems. Available from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/solving_sleep_problems.html.