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Sleeping

In some families, children simply go to bed when they’re ready, or at the same time as their parents. Some parents are happy to cuddle their children off to sleep every night. But others want bedtime to be more organised and early enough to give their children a long sleep, and some child-free time for themselves.

How much sleep is needed?

Like adults, the sleep patterns of babies and children vary. From birth, some babies need more or less sleep than others, but below are the average amounts needed in 24 hours, including naps in the day.

Newborns to three months. A newborn baby spends roughly the same amount of time asleep as awake, but may spend as many as 16–18 hours out of 24 asleep, or as little as 8. Inevitably, sleep will be disturbed by the need for night feeds. Problems such as being too hot or too cold, may also disturb your baby’s sleep.

Three to six months. As your baby grows, the need for night feeds becomes less frequent and periods of sleep get longer. Some babies will sleep for around eight hours or even longer at night and, by four months, may spend on average twice as long asleep at night as they do during the day.

Six to twelve months. At this age, night feeds are no longer necessary, and some babies may even sleep for up to 12 hours at a stretch at night. However, teething discomfort or hunger may cause some babies to wake during the night.

  • By twelve months, babies sleep for about 12–15 hours altogether.
  • A two-year-old may sleep for about 11–12 hours at night, with one or two naps in the day.
  • Most three-to four-year-olds need about 12 hours sleep, but some may need only 8 or 10 hours, and others, 14. Some may need a nap in the day.

 

Regular bedtimes

Some future sleep problems may be avoided if you can establish a simple and soothing bedtime routine early. This can include a bath, changing into night clothes, feeding, cuddling, then putting to bed.

Put your baby down awake rather than getting him or her to sleep by rocking or cuddling in your arms. Otherwise your baby may not learn to fall asleep in the cot, and may need nursing back to sleep if he or she wakes up again.

As your child gets older, keeping to a similar bedtime routine is also important. This should include a ‘winding down’ period and the avoidance of excitement and over-stimulation before bedtime.

An example of a routine could be:

  • bathtime and put in night clothes
  • a milky drink or supper
  • brushing of teeth
  • a bedtime story
  • making sure your child’s comforter such as a dummy, cuddly toy or security blanket is nearby
  • a goodnight kiss and cuddle
  • leaving a dim light on if necessary

Sleep problems

What is a sleep problem for one family, may not be one for another. If you are happy for your baby to go to bed at the same time as you, or for your child to sleep in your bed, that’s fine.

If however you or your child are suffering from lack of sleep because your child will not go to bed or wakes during the night, you may like to try some of the following suggestions.

  • Refusing to go to bed
  • Decide what time you want your child to go to bed, and establish a bedtime routine.
  • Avoid excitement or noisy games near bedtime and have a ‘winding down’ period.
  • If a very late bedtime has been established, gradually reduce this by 15–30 minutes each night until you reach the time the child is to go to bed.
  • Put your child to bed and set limits on the amount of time spent with him or her. For example, read one story only, then tuck your child in and say goodnight.
  • Make sure your child has a dummy if used, favourite toy, or comforter before settling into bed.
  • Leave a crying child for five to ten minutes before going back in. Resettle your child down again. Don’t pick him or her up or take him downstairs again. Put a child who gets up back to bed again.
  • Leave a drink of water within reach, and a dim light on if necessary.
  • Don’t keep checking to see if your child is asleep.
  • Be prepared to repeat this routine for several nights. The important thing is to be firm and not to give in.

Waking during the night

By the time your child is six months old it is reasonable to expect him or her to sleep through most nights. However, up to half of all children under five go through periods of night waking. Some will just go back to sleep on their own, others will cry or want company. If this happens try to think why your child is waking up and decide what you want to do about it.

For example:

  • Is it hunger? A later feed or some cereal last thing at night might help your baby to sleep through the night.
  • If your child seems afraid of the dark, a nightlight should be given.
  • Is your child waking from fears or bad dreams? If so, try to find the reason.
  • Is your child too hot or too cold? If so the bedclothes or heat should be adjusted.
  • If no cause is found, and your child continues to wake and cry, or wants company, here are some suggestions for coping.

Sleep with your child

Some parents like doing this anyway. If you have two children sharing one bedroom, and one is likely to wake the other, it can be the only answer. You may worry that it’ll become a habit, and it’s true that it may. But if it’s a way of getting some sleep, that may be all that matters. It’s possible to move some children back to their own beds once they’ve fallen asleep again and you may be able to teach your child to sleep alone when he or she is old enough to understand what you want.

Let your child sleep in the same room as a brother or sister

If you think your child is lonely, and the brother or sister does not object, putting children in the same room can often result in them both sleeping through the night.

Teach your child to fall back to sleep alone

  • Check everything is all right and settle your child down with the minimum of talking.
  • Do not give anything to eat, and only water to drink if necessary.
  • Do not take your child downstairs or into the parental bed.
  • Leave your child and let him or her cry for a short period.
  • Repeat the above routine, gradually extending the time period before checking.
  • Continue the routine each night until your child sleeps.
  • Be prepared for this routine to take several nights or even a week or two before it is effective.

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.