Preschooler sleep: what you need to know
Children aged 3-5 years need 10-13 hours of sleep a night. Some might also have a day nap of about an hour.
Sometimes preschoolers can take a while to settle and get to sleep. This is because they’re busy thinking about the day even after they go to bed.
Sleep is important for your preschooler’s health, growth and development. When children get enough good-quality sleep, they’re more settled and happy during the day. Getting the right amount of sleep also strengthens your child’s immune system and reduces the risk of infection and illness.
A positive bedtime routine can help preschoolers feel ready for sleep, especially if you follow the routine consistently, both during the week and on weekends.
A bedtime routine for preschoolers might look something like this:
- 7 pm: brush teeth, go to toilet, put on night nappy if needed.
- 7.15 pm: quiet time – read a book, tell a story, sing a song, have a cuddle.
- 7.30 pm: get into bed and kiss goodnight.
Most preschoolers are ready for bed around 7.30 pm, especially if they’ve had a big day at preschool. You might want to establish a 2-3 book rule for bedtime, with the promise to read more during the day.
If your child takes a dummy to bed, you might consider encouraging your child to let go of the dummy around this time.
Getting up after bedtime
Your preschooler might go through a stage of calling out from bed or getting up after you’ve said goodnight. Try these tips:
- Avoid boisterous play as well as watching TV and using computers, phones or tablets close to bedtime. These activities can make it harder for your child to settle.
- Establish a consistent, calming bedtime routine.
- Make sure your child’s room is quiet, dimly lit and neither too hot nor too cold.
- Before leaving the room, check that your child has everything they need for sleep, like a favourite cuddly toy or blanket. Remind your child to stay quietly in bed.
- If you want to establish a routine that doesn’t involve going in to your child each time your child calls out, try to be consistent and respond only if you think they really need something.
- If your child gets out of bed, calmly ask them to go back to bed. Say that you’re just in the other room. Repeat this firmly and quietly until your child doesn’t get up again.
Sometimes your child might actually need something. For example, if there’s a spider on the wall, calmly remove the spider. If your child is scared of the dark, think about using a night-light. Your child might settle after you’ve taken care of what they need.
Night terrors and nightmares
Night terrors and nightmares are quite common among preschoolers. Night terrors and nightmares happen at different times of the night, and they need to be managed differently.
Night terrors happen in the first few hours of the night, when children are in deep sleep. If your child is having a night terror, they’re actually asleep although they look like they’re awake. For example, your child’s eyes might be open or your child might be moving around. But your child won’t respond to you as they normally would.
Night terrors can be frightening to watch, but they don’t hurt your child.
Don’t wake your child during a night terror, because this often makes it last longer. Instead, wait for your child to stop crying and thrashing about. Guide your child back to bed if they’ve climbed out. Children usually settle back to sleep quickly after a night terror and don’t remember it in the morning.
Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, when children dream the most. They’re related to preschoolers’ developing imaginations. If your child has a nightmare, your child might wake up upset. Your child will be able to remember the nightmare and talk to you.
If your child has a nightmare, your child will need cuddles, comfort and reassurance – for example, ‘Bad dreams are very scary, aren’t they?’ Your child might take a while to go back to sleep.
Even if your child uses the toilet or potty during the day, they might still wet at night.
Using a night-light and putting a potty in your child’s room might prompt your child to wee there during the night. Let your child know that you’ll help if they need it. You can also get night-time nappies or pull-ups for older children.
Most children grow out of night-time wetting by themselves. But if you’re concerned about your child’s night-time wetting, talk to your GP.
Sleep and autistic children
Autistic children can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, just like other children. But they can also have different or more severe sleep problems, like sleeping at irregular times, sleeping less than expected for their age, getting up in the night or being very sleepy in the day.
You can deal with many sleep problems in autistic children by using behaviour strategies and encouraging daytime and bedtime habits that promote sleep.