Healthy Sleep Habits – A Guide For Parents

Last updated: March 6, 2019

Overview

Does your child experience sleep problems? Depending on their age, the type of problems may vary. There are some things every parent should know about their child’s sleep habits – for example, many parents of sleep-deprived children are not even aware of this problem. Sleep deprivation further leads to mental health issues – frequent mood swings, depression, inability to fall asleep, problems in school performance, and more. This parent’s guide to healthy sleep habits discusses some of the most frequent sleep issues found in babies, toddlers, schoolchildren, and teenagers and offers constructive solutions on how to instill good sleep habits in your children.

How much sleep does my child need?

American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) suggests the following hours of sleep for each age group, published in a consensus statement:

Age

Time

Infants – including naps (4 to 12 months old)

12-16 hours

Toddlers – including naps (1 to 2 years old)

11-14 hours

Preschoolers – including naps (3 to 5 years old)

10-13 hours

School-aged children (6-12 years)

9-12 hours

Teenagers (13-18 years old)

8-10 hours

For more information, view the Ultimate Children’s Sleep Chart. You may notice that different sources offer slightly different sleep recommendations – they may vary by 2-3 hours. You shouldn’t get too worried about fitting your child into the exact numbers, because every child is unique and has his own sleeping needs. However, it is always a good idea to consult a pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns.

The easiest way to know whether your child has had enough sleep is to ask yourself some basic questions.

  • Does my child need to be woken up every day?
  • Is my child too tired, aggressive, or moody?
  • Does my child have thinking problems?
  • Does my child react too emotionally and is he/she hyperactive?
  • Does my child go to bed a lot earlier from time to time?

Children who don’t have enough sleep usually have trouble controlling their emotions – the same goes for adults. Hyperactivity may be another telltale sign of child not having the necessary time for sleep. As for the last question, a positive answer would show for sure that your child has accumulated some sleep debt that now needs to be repaid.

Teaching your child good sleep habits

Having good sleep habits helps a child set a healthy basis for the future. Children who have a late sleep schedule are at a greater risk of developing childhood obesity, may easily hurt themselves and suffer sleep disorders and depression later in life.

Although you can’t use the same tricks for babies and teenagers, there are some bedtime routine tricks and daily activities that work for everybody, promoting healthy sleep:

  • Stick to a regular routine. Having the same (early) bedtime and waking time eases the process of setting your child’s circadian clock, especially if paired with regular meal times.
  • Avoid caffeine. Learn which foods and drinks contain caffeine and make sure not to give them to your child after late afternoon hours.
  • Have plenty of activities in the daytime. This doesn’t mean you should exhaust your child with sports, but having reasonable physical activity (especially during the day, in the sunlight) helps the body get the much-needed activity. Not having enough activities may negatively impact one’s sleep schedule.
  • Dim the lights and keep the volume down. Bright light may confuse our body into thinking it is still daylight and high volume keeps us fully alert. Calming down the atmosphere before bed makes it easier to get into the sleeping mood.
  • Get rid of technology at least an hour before bed. Screen lights may negatively impact our circadian clock. Taking a phone to bed or watching TV until late at night negatively affects the quality and duration of sleep. Plug off and have your child enjoy a good night’s sleep.
  • Take a warm bath. Warm water will raise the body’s temperature, which can help in promoting relaxation and sleepiness.
  • Do relaxing activities. Read a story to your toddler or young child or encourage reading if they can read by themselves. You can sing a song together or cuddle just before bed.
  • Let the morning light in. Make sure there is a way for sunlight to come into your child’s room. Light receptors in our eyes recognize the sunlight and this way our body gets the signal to wake up. This leaves enough time for our body to ’bootstrap’ all of our systems. Waking up like this is more natural than with alarm clock only and your child will feel well-rested.
  • Keep the kid’s bedroom cozy. No TV, dim lights with a safe and relaxing sleep environment and a good bed help your child get quality sleep.
  • Don’t let them to bed on an empty tummy. You should breastfeed your baby and offer a glass of milk or a light snack to your older child.

The tips you’ve just read can be used for your children as well as for you. Now, here are healthy sleep habits for young children, recommended by a Canadian pediatricians website, as well as for teenagers, recommended by the Child Mind Institute. Abiding by them will promote a child’s health and comfortable, safe sleep.

Babies from birth to 4 months:

  • Have enough naps. A baby who is too tired may have trouble falling asleep. You shouldn’t keep your baby awake during the day hoping to get her to sleep through the night. Napping helps with falling asleep.
  • Put your baby to sleep while still awake. If he gets used to falling asleep in your arms, he may later have trouble falling asleep without you holding him.
  • Cuddle and rock the baby, but make sure you stop rocking while she’s still awake.
  • Let your baby stir. Don’t approach your baby right away, he may stir and let out cry-like sounds, but will probably keep sleeping.
  • Keep toys out and make sure your baby lies flat on the bed. Keeping objects inside of the crib may lead to sudden infant death syndrome, as they may suffocate the baby.
  • Don’t stimulate your baby at night. If you need to change a diaper or breastfeed, keep the lights dim and the sounds low, so that the baby can easily go back to sleep.

Infants from 4 to 12 months:

  • Keep up with the bedtime routine. This is very important as your infant will learn to associate certain activities with sleep, and keeping strictly to the schedule will help you a lot. One of the most favorite routines for many parents is the 3B – bath, book, bed.
  • Keep the bottle out of bed. Having a bottle with any liquids other than water may lead to your child’s tooth decay.
  • Teach your child to self-soothe at around six months. If he wakes up at night and everything is alright (he is not hot, cold or hungry), let him stay in the crib and calm him down by talking to him and putting your hand on him.

Toddlers from 1-2 years:

  • Don’t break the routine you’ve established with your child. At this age routine has even more important than before – it includes relaxing activities, bath, reading, dimming the lights.
  • Avoid late afternoon naps. This is when naps begin affecting your child’s night sleep.
  • Don’t let your child dictate sleep time. If they disagree with your decision, remain firm.
  • Give your child a blanket or stuffed animal. Children older than 12 months may need a comforting item they can use to self-soothe when you are not there.

Toddlers from 3-5 years:

  • Set clear boundaries. If your child tries to get more bedtime activities in order to postpone sleep time, establish exact rules – how long each activity lasts.
  • Tuck your child well. They will easily fall asleep when feeling secure.
  • Remember to shut down all electronic well before bed.

Preschoolers from 5-7 years:

  • Be sensitive to nighttime fears. Respond to them and make sure your child feels safe and secure.
  • Daytime naps should be slowly eliminated. Some children stop having daily naps at the age of 3 or 4, however, some still take naps at 6. As they are reaching school age which will require plenty of daily activities and no time for naps, children should completely stop having daytime naps at the age of 6.

School-aged children from 7-11 years:

  • Your child should completely stop bedwetting. Although it is quite normal for toddlers and preschoolers, if this keeps happening regularly at the age of 7, you might want to consult a doctor.
  • Keep up with the healthy sleep schedule. If you haven’t established good sleep habits, don’t suddenly change the existing sleep schedule of your child – this may lead to strong opposition. Talk to your child and change things slowly, step by step.

Teenagers from 12-19 years:

  • Make sure your teenager doesn’t use technology just before bed. It may be difficult because they have homework to do and friends to chat with, but a simple rule of shutting down all electronics at 9 pm may help regulate technology use.
  • Take a firm stand when they resist sleep time. If you sometimes let them stay up and sometimes not, you undermine your own authority over your kids. With time they should learn there is no use in standing against you.
  • Be consistent. Your teenagers’ circadian rhythm will begin shifting to a later time, but make sure to keep the same reasonable bedtime every night.
  • Don’t let them have late-night snacks. This especially goes for food and drinks which contain caffeine, such as tea, sodas, chocolate, and coffee. Having high-calorie food after 11 pm will delay the onset of sleep. Respecting dinner time is a part of a good sleep routine.
  • Set an example you want them to follow. If your child sees you going to bed on time and finishing your work early, they are likely to do the same. If you happen to stay up until 2 am, you will not send a good message to your teenager.
  • Refrain from working in bed. Having a special room with a desk for work, and using bed only for sleep will help your child associate bed with sleeping. This makes falling asleep easier.

Teenagers are young adults, and as such, they have higher social demands which are usually communicated through phones and computers. Some teenagers may throw real temper-tantrums if you try and take their technology away. Some authors suggest using constructive language to restrict technology use. For example, you can tell your child that ’phones can be used until dinner’ which sounds a lot less harsh than stating that ’phones are strictly forbidden after dinner’.

What are common sleep problems and disorders?

  • Night terrors. Night terrors are different from nightmares (bad dreams). They occur during deep sleep – which happens sometime in the first few hours of sleep. Night terrors don’t pose danger to your child’s life, even though they may seem scary when your child starts screaming, shaking, or thrashing around. There may be a genetic predisposition to frequent night terrors, but they are seen as a normal stage in sleep development. Try not to wake your child up and guide them back to bed. Make sure they are safe. If night terrors happen too frequently and last for more than 40 minutes, you should talk to a doctor.
  • Nightmares are just bad dreams and you should explain to your child that things which happened in the dream are not real. Avoid letting your child watch violent and scary films as they may lead to nightmares. If they are too severe and interfere with daytime, you should contact your doctor.
  • Waking up too frequently during the night. When we fall asleep, we should not be responsive to our environment. If your child sleeps too lightly, he may have a sleep disorder that requires attention.
  • Snoring. This may be caused by a particular position of the body during sleep. In such a case, if the position is changed, your child will stop snoring. However, excessive snoring should not be overlooked as it may suggest breathing problems such as sleep apnea. Children who suffer from sleep apnea stop breathing many times during the night due to enlarged tonsils or adenoids, obesity or sinus infections.
  • Sleepwalking can potentially be dangerous – your child could hit into an object or go outside if the door isn’t locked. Children usually grow out of it without consequences.
  • Bedwetting frequently happens with young children as they have not yet learned to control their bladder or just sleep too tightly that they don’t wake up if their bladder is full. However, if it keeps happening with older children, you should try to get rid of bedwetting through different treatments, like drinking less fluid before bed or waking your child up at night to take her to the bathroom.
  • Teeth-grinding and thumb-sucking. Teeth grinding is mostly harmless, but if you are still worried about it, you may talk to your dentist. When it comes to thumb-sucking, even though it is harmless before the age of five, doing so later can have a negative effect on the tooth growth.

Regardless of the age of your child, you should make sure they establish a good sleep routine and have enough hours of sleep. Although technology is greatly loved by all children, teach them not to use it excessively and uncontrollably. And for the end, make sure to get enough sleep yourself, so that you can keep an eye on your children, set them a good example and lead them towards healthy sleep habits successfully.

Additional Resources

  1. Paruthi S, Brooks L.J, et al. Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations: A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Consensus Statement. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.5866
  2. Children’s Sleep Guide. The Sleep Help Institute. https://www.sleephelp.org/childrens-sleep-guide/ Accessed on December 1, 2018
  3. Sleep Debt – Can You Make Up Lost Sleep? Sleepline. Published on November 14, 2018 https://www.sleepline.com/sleep-debt/ Accessed on December 1, 2018
  4. How To Sleep Better – The Ultimate Guide to Catching More Z’s. Sleepline. Published on November 14, 2018 https://www.sleepline.com/how-to-sleep-better/ Accessed on December 6, 2018
  5. Healthy sleep for your baby and child. Caring for Kids.
  6.  https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/healthy_sleep_for_your_baby_and_child Accessed on December 1, 2018
  7. How Can You Help Teens Get More Sleep? https://childmind.org/guide/parents-guide-to-teenagers-and-sleep/how-can-you-help/ Accessed on December 1, 2018
  8. Children, Sleep and Technology: The Parent’s Guide to a Healthy Balance. Webroot. https://www.webroot.com/us/en/resources/tips-articles/children-sleep-and-technology Accessed on December 1, 2018
  9. Night Terrors and nightmares. Healthy Families BC. Published on November 20, 2014 https://www.healthyfamiliesbc.ca/home/articles/night-terrors-and-nightmares-children Accessed on December 1, 2018
  10. School-age sleep: what to expect. Raising Children. https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/sleep/understanding-sleep/school-age-sleep Accessed on December 1, 2018
  11. Bedwetting. Raising Children. https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/sleep/night-time-problems/bedwetting Accessed on December 1, 2018

The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Read our full medical disclaimer.