Different children have different sleep needs, habits and problems. Here are answers to 20 frequently asked questions about children’s sleep.
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Bedtime routines and habits
Waking at night
My three-year-old twitches as she falls asleep. Is this normal?
Yes. These twitches are probably ‘sleep starts’ – quick jerks of the arms and legs that happen as your child falls asleep. Up to 70% of children and grown-ups have sleep starts. Tiredness, stress or lack of sleep might make them worse, so it can be worth checking your child’s sleep habits. If the jerks are more than quick jerks or twitches or you notice jerking later in the night, you should check with your GP.
Is it normal that I have to wake my eight-year-old up for school?
It could be normal, but eight-year-olds usually wake up by themselves. This might be a sign that your child has a sleep problem. Check your child’s sleep habits, particularly whether he’s getting enough sleep for a school-age child. And always see your GP if you’re concerned.
My child snores and gasps at night. Should I be worried?
Snoring can be caused by a cold or a blocked nose. If it happens most nights, even when your child is well, it could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). In OSA, blockages to the upper airway stop your child from breathing for a short time during sleep. See your GP if your child snores, stops breathing during sleep, works hard to breathe, breathes through her mouth, tosses and turns at night, or sweats a lot overnight.
Is my child getting enough sleep? How much sleep do different ages need?
Different children need different amounts of sleep, so it can be hard to know if your child is getting enough. You can check the recommended amount of sleep for your child’s age in these articles:
When should a child stop napping? How long should a nap be?
Around 25% of children stop napping by three years. Another 50% stop at 3-4 years. Most children have stopped napping by five years if they’re getting enough sleep at night. Naps can range from 30 minutes to around two hours.
If you’re having bedtime struggles, try letting your child have a shorter nap earlier in the day – for example, a nap after lunch. If your child won’t have a daytime nap when you feel he needs one, try to give him some quiet time resting in his room or reading a book.
What does it mean if my child wakes up grumpy?
If your child is grumpy when she wakes up, it might mean she isn’t getting enough sleep or that she isn’t getting enough deep sleep. If you’re concerned your child’s grumpiness might be caused by a sleep problem or a sleep disorder, see your GP.
How do I get my teenage child to sleep before midnight?
Here are some ideas to help your child get to sleep earlier:
- Encourage your child to go to bed and get up around the same time every day. This can help get his body clock into a regular rhythm. For example, on weekends a sleep-in of an hour is OK, but it’s best to avoid longer sleep-ins. These might lead to your child not feeling tired at night.
- Allow plenty of time – for example, 40 minutes – for your child to do wind-down activities before bed. These activities could be warm baths, having a warm milk drink, writing in a journal, reading a book or magazine or listening to quiet music.
- Turn off electronic stimulation in your child’s bedroom at least one hour before bedtime. This includes loud music, mobile phones, tablets, computer screens and TV.
During puberty, children start to secrete melatonin later at night than they did in earlier childhood. This affects their circadian rhythm. It means that your child will want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning.
Your teenage child will probably sleep better and function better during the day if he has a set bedtime for school nights. You can find more information in our illustrated guide to teenage sleep habits.
What can I do through the day to improve my child’s sleep?
These tips for daytime might help improve your child’s sleep at night:
- Give your child a healthy breakfast to help kick-start her body clock.
- Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. Daylight switches off your child’s melatonin and helps her wake up and be alert, and night-time switches on melatonin to make her sleepy.
- Encourage your child to be physically active and to exercise. Physical activity helps children to sleep longer.
- Keep your child away from caffeine – in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – especially in the late afternoon and evening.
- Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can make your child more alert or uncomfortable. This can make it harder to get to sleep.
How do I stop my children from going crazy at bedtime, which is also when my partner gets home from work?
It’s normal for your partner to want to have some fun with your children after work. It’s only a problem if it’s noisy, active play that makes it harder for your children to settle into bed for sleep.
Talk with your partner about creating a family routine that works for your family, including quiet time under dim light for an hour before bedtime. For example, your partner might be able to arrive home earlier to help with bedtime. If this isn’t possible, your partner might be able to quietly read the children a story before lights out rather than being loud and active just before bed.
How can I move my child’s bedtime to an earlier time?
To help your child fall asleep earlier, start with his current bedtime and gradually work back by starting the bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier every few days. Most children will fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed. If your child is lying awake in bed for more than 20-30 minutes after lights out, you might need to keep bedtime at the same time for a couple of weeks before making it earlier again.
Try to get your child up at about the same time each morning, including on weekends. A regular morning wake time can help with keeping a regular bedtime.
How can I get my six-year-old to sleep in her own bed?
Here are some ideas to help your child fall asleep in her own bed:
- Set up a regular bedtime routine – for example, bath, story and bed.
- Check that your child’s bedroom is dark, quiet and private enough.
- Use camping out – this is a gradual and gentle technique where you sit with your child until she falls asleep, and then gradually move your chair out of the room over a period of 1-3 weeks.
- Encourage good sleep habits during the day – for example, getting plenty of sunlight and exercise.
- Praise your child when you notice she’s trying to make changes to sleep patterns. You could also try a reward chart to encourage the bedtime behaviour you want.
If you’re planning to make changes to your child’s bedtime routine and sleep habits, it might help to explain your plans for a new bedtime routine to your child. Be consistent with sticking to the plan.
How do I deal with my eight-year-old’s fears and anxieties at bedtime?
You could try working on bedtime worries together during the day. Talk about your child’s fears with him or get him to try writing his thoughts in a journal. Relaxation techniques or muscle relaxation might also help.
How do I stop my child from calling out and getting out of bed at night?
A positive bedtime routine can cut down on bedtime battles. Once your child is in bed, let her know that you expect her to stay quietly in her bed until sleep comes. Read our article on calling out and getting out of bed for more tips and strategies.
What do I do about my child’s head-banging and rocking to sleep?
Head-banging, body-rocking and head-rolling are nearly always harmless, and your child is likely to outgrow them. About 5% of five-year-olds use this kind of self-soothing behaviour to fall asleep.
Try to ignore the behaviour, work on ways to reduce the noise, and keep your child safe. For example, you could move the bed away from the wall and check and tighten the bed screws. See your GP if you’re worried.
My three-year-old demands bottles of milk overnight. How can I stop this pattern?
This is probably happening because your child has a habit of needing a bottle to fall asleep. When he wakes and can’t get back to sleep during the night, he calls for a bottle.
Here are some tips for phasing out night feeds and helping your child learn to sleep independently:
- Choose your timing. A period of change or stress for you or your child might not be a good time to give up the bottle.
- Talk to your child about giving up the bottle.
- Encourage the use of other comforters like a blanket or teddy.
- When your child manages to give up the bottle, have a big celebration or give your child a reward.
Try not to turn back. No matter how well you have prepared your child for this change, expect some discomfort and some protest.
How do I stop my five-year-old from sleepwalking?
You can start by checking that your child is getting enough sleep. An earlier bedtime, or a regular bedtime, might reduce sleepwalking. Around 7-15% of children sleepwalk, and usually it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.
If your child is sleepwalking, make sure she’s safe by clearing any obstacles from the bedroom and hallways, locking the front and back doors, removing trip hazards and checking there are no sharp objects around.
Your child might sleeptalk too. Again, this is usually nothing to worry about. Children often grow out of these habits as teenagers, but see your doctor if you’re worried.
My child sometimes wakes up distressed, crying and inconsolable. What should I do?
If your child won’t respond to comforting or soothing but is otherwise well, he might be having a night terror. Stay calm and avoid touching your child unless he’s at risk of hurting himself. Waking your child can prolong the episodes. Night terrors don’t harm your child, and he won’t remember them in the morning.
Being overtired or anxious can make episodes worse, so it’s worth checking that your child is getting enough good-quality sleep. And if you’re really worried, or the night terrors seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice.
What should I do when my child has a nightmare?
If your child wakes up after a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Let her know that everything is OK and safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again. By seven years, she might be able to deal with nightmares without calling you for comfort.
It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is having nightmares and is also really anxious during the day. Also seek help if your child has been through a traumatic event and is having nightmares about it.
My child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and poor sleep. How can I change this?
You can manage and overcome many sleep difficulties in your child with ASD using common behaviour strategies. You can also encourage good sleep habits for your child with ASD, including regular sleep cycles, positive bedtime routines and appropriate bedtimes.
My child has a developmental delay. How can I help him sleep better?
You can manage and overcome many of your child’s sleep issues using common bedtime behaviour strategies. A regular and predictable bedtime routine will help your child know that it’s time for sleep. Telling your child you expect him to stay in bed will reinforce the message.
You might also try strategies like camping out or returning your child to bed. Some nights you might need to take him back to bed several times. Talk to your health professional if you’re worried.
If you think your child might have a medical condition that affects his sleep – for example, obstructive sleep apnoea, epilepsy, asthma or gastro-oesophageal reflux – see your GP.
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