Children grow and develop rapidly, so it's important they get enough sleep. Good sleep habits help them get the energy they need for active play and good health.
What is a good sleep habit?
Actions that help lead to a good night's sleep are called good sleep habits. This is often referred to as good sleep hygiene. It might involve having:
- routine sleep times
- a relaxed, safe sleep environment
Good sleep habits help your child get the rest they need.
Learn more about body clocks and sleep cycles.
How does our body regulate sleep?
Sleep patterns are controlled by our body's internal clock. It is also known as our circadian rhythm. It keeps us awake during the day and promotes sleep at night. Melatonin is a hormone which tells our bodies that it's time to sleep. Our body clock helps to release melatonin at the right time.
When we sleep, we cycle through two stages of sleep — rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (NREM). REM sleep is also known as light sleep. NREM sleep is also known as deep sleep.
Adult sleep cycles mostly involve deep sleep. However, babies mostly sleep lightly. This is because REM sleep is important for their development. As children grow, they begin to sleep more deeply.
How much sleep does a child need?
Babies' sleep varies a lot. Most babies sleep for up to 18 hours over both day and night. As your baby grows, they will sleep more at night and less during the day. Babies often wake at night.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers sleep for around 11 to 14 hours each day. Most of their sleep occurs at night, but often they need a nap during the day as well. As children get older, they wake less and sleep for longer.
Primary school-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night.
Each child is different, and their needs may vary.
Why are good sleep habits important for my child?
Good sleep habits help your child get a good rest. Good sleep hygiene helps your child maintain their body clock to release melatonin. This helps them get to sleep more quickly.
A good sleep is important for developing:
- concentration skills
- learning skills
- social skills
Without a good rest, your child may struggle with:
- controlling their emotions and actions
A good quality sleep is when your child sleeps deeply enough and doesn't wake up too often for their age.
How can I help my child form healthy sleep habits?
Good nutrition can help your child get a good sleep. Where possible, try to time meals so your child isn't going to bed either hungry or too full. Otherwise, they may feel uncomfortable and have trouble settling down.
Near bedtime, make sure your child avoids:
- soft drinks
- fatty food
Avoid feeding your child after bedtime.
Exercise can also help your child sleep well. Physical activity and play during the day helps your child use up energy. This way, they're less likely to be restless at bedtime. Encourage your child to play outdoors — exposure to sunlight helps to keep their body clock in sync to help them sleep.
Avoid daytime naps if your child is aged over 5 years.
Wind-down time before bed
Relaxing before bedtime can help your child transition from playtime to sleep.
You can encourage quiet activities, such as:
- looking at books
- telling your child a story
- playing some soft music
These can help them feel calm, relaxed and sleepy.
For at least an hour before bedtime, avoid using electronics such as:
- electronic devices
- mobile phones
Settling to sleep
When your child goes to bed, there are ways that you can help them settle to sleep.
Before leaving the room:
- check your child is comfortable
- make sure it's quiet and dark
- remind your child to stay quietly in bed
- make sure your child has their toy or blanket if they usually sleep with one
Once you've left the room, try to stay away. If you go back in, your child may want you to go back in later, and for nights afterwards.
If your child gets out of bed:
- don't punish or scold them
- calmly but firmly take them back to bed
- don't offer food, conversation, or anything that your child might see as a reward
It's also important that they feel safe and relaxed in their sleep environment. Some children may become upset if left alone in a dark room to sleep. If your baby is upset, be with them until they fall asleep. Letting your child cry alone can lead to attachment issues. You can help give them comfort by:
- leaving the door open
- use a nightlight
Different settling techniques help different children. Some children settle better if you cuddle with them before bed. It's important that you take an approach that suits you and your child. If they are old enough to understand, tell your child what is going to happen around bedtime, and what you expect.
Most children fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed.
Following a set routine at evening bedtime can help your child link certain activities with sleep, such as:
- eating dinner
- wind-down time
- cleaning teeth
- going to the toilet
- saying goodnight
Choose a bedtime routine to suit your household.
Decide what time you want your child to go to bed, and what time you want them to wake up. If your child misses a daytime nap, try to keep them up and awake. Put them to bed half an hour earlier than usual.
Start your new routine at a time that suits. Don't try to establish a new routine if you are going to be out for a couple of nights or if your child is unwell.
It's okay if your routine doesn't fall into place straight away. Keep at it — if your child isn't cooperating with the routine, keep calm and firm.
Resources and Support
The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne has more information and tips for helping children get to sleep.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: May 2023