Sleep is an important part of our lives and is essential for health, wellbeing, and daytime functioning, and is particularly important for early childhood development. Research suggests that poor sleep affects many aspects of a young child’s daytime functioning, including emotional and physical health, interpersonal relationships, behaviour, and academic performance.
It is estimated that between 20% to 45% of young children experience sleep problems, with the particular kinds of sleep problems varying with age. Common sleep disturbances in children include difficulty initiating and maintaining sleep, bedtime refusal, frequent night awakenings, sleepwalking, and nightmares.
Behavioural Sleep Difficulties
In children, sleep difficulties have clearly defined behavioural characteristics: sleep-onset association type, and limit-setting type.
Sleep-onset association (also defined as learned behaviours), occur when a child gets used to, or associates certain behaviours or an environment with falling asleep (e.g., a child learns to fall asleep with pacifier use, feeding, rocking, or the presence of a parent). When the associated conditions are provided, the child may sleep, but the process of falling asleep may be extended and demanding on parents. However, when the associated conditions or objects are not present, the child may have difficulty falling asleep.
Limit-setting difficulties (characteristed by parental difficulty with setting limits and rules for bedtime and/or having them followed). As parents can become tired and highly susceptible in response to children’s difficulties settling or frequent night awakenings, this can lead to parents making short-term decisions (e.g., consenting to co-sleeping in order to return to sleep quickly) – which can unintentionally service to maintain their child’s sleep problems. Limit-setting difficulties may look like:
- A child stalling bedtime (i.,e needing another story, drink or hug) – also known as “curtain calls”
What may help…
- Bedtime routine. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine that includes calm and enjoyable activities, such as a bath, soft music and bedtime stories. Avoid exciting high-energy activities, such as running around, or watching television shows or videos.
- Make sure the bedroom is suitable for sleep: Ensure the bedroom is dark and quiet. If your child is anxious or afraid at night, use a night light.
- Turn off technology: Turning off computers, tablets and television 1 hour before bedtime should help your child sleep better.
- Put your child to bed drowsy but awake. After the bedtime routine, put your child in her crib/bed drowsy but awake and leave the room. Remember, the key to having your child sleep through the night is to have her learn to fall asleep on her own, so she can put herself back to sleep when she naturally awakens during the night.
- Checking method. If your child cries or yells, check on them. Wait for as long or as short a time as you wish. For some children, frequent checking is effective; for others, infrequent checking works best. Continue returning to check on your child as long as she is crying or upset. The visits should be brief (1 minute) and boring. Calmly tell your child it’s time to go to sleep. The purpose of returning to the room is to reassure your child that you are still present and to reassure you that your child is okay.
- Respond to your child during the night. In the beginning, respond to your child as you normally do throughout the night (e.g., nurse, rock). Research indicates that the majority of children will naturally begin sleeping through the night within 1-2 weeks of falling asleep quickly and easily at bedtime. If your child continues to awaken during the night after several weeks, then use the same checking method during the night as you did at bedtime.
- Be consistent and don’t give up. The first few nights are likely to be very challenging and often the second or third night is worse than the first night. However, within a few nights to a week, you will begin to see improvement. If the child keepings coming out of their bedroom, parents should return their child to the bedroom with minimal interaction (remember to be calm and boring!)
Mindell JA & Owens JA (2003). A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
How much sleep is enough?
Generally, people usually take less than 30 minutes to fall asleep at the beginning of the night and will wake up once or twice during the night.
It is unrealistic to expect to fall asleep immediately in bed or to never wake up at all during the night.
Recommended Sleep Durations
|Age range||Ideal hours of sleep|
|Newborns (0-3 months)||14 to 17|
|Infants (4-12 months)||12 to 15|
|Toddlers (1-2 years)||11 to 14|
|Preschoolers (3-5 years)||10 to 13|
|School-aged children (6-13 years)||9 to 11|
|Teenagers (14-17 years)||8 to 10|
Note. Recommendations of the National Sleep Foundation (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015)