Kids and Sleep

“I’ll go this time.”With relief, Mary rolled over in bed when her husband got up to answer their newborn’s cries. “Will I ever get to sleep through the night again?” she thought.Sleep – or lack of it – is probably the most-discussed aspect of baby care. New parents discover its vital importance those first few weeks. The quality and quantity of an infant’s sleep affects the well-being of everyone in the household, and it’s the difference between having cheerful, alert parents and members of the walking dead.

And sleep strife rarely ends with a growing child’s move from crib to bed. It simply changes form. Instead of cries, it’s pleas or refusals. Instead of a feeding at 3 AM, it’s a nightmare or request for water.

It sounds like parents don’t get a good night’s sleep until their kids have left home. Well, actually, it’s not all that bad. But how do you get them to bed through the cries, screams, avoidance tactics, and pleas? How should you respond when you’re awakened in the middle of the night? And how much sleep is enough?

It all depends on age.

How Much Is Enough?

Charts that list the hours of sleep likely to be required by an infant or a 2-year-old may cause concern when individual differences aren’t considered. These numbers are simply averages reported to be slept by large groups of children of particular ages. There is no magical number of hours required by ALL kids in a certain age group. Two-year-old Sarah might sleep from 8 PM to 8 AM, while 2-year-old Johnny is just as alert the next day after sleeping from 10 PM to 5 AM.

Most children’s sleep requirements fall within a predictable range of hours based on their age, but remember that your child is a unique individual with distinct sleep needs. Here are some approximate numbers based on age, accompanied by age-appropriate pro-sleep tactics.

The First 6 Months

Newborns generally sleep or drowse for 16 to 20 hours a day, divided about equally between night and day. Their longest sleep period generally is 4 or 5 hours, because this is about how long their small bellies can go between feedings. However, some may occasionally sleep 10 hours in a row, while others sleep only 2 hours at a time. There is no sleep formula for newborns, because their internal clocks aren’t fully developed. As long as a baby is healthy, anything goes.

Just when parents feel that sleeping through the night is that elusive brass ring never to be grasped, their baby’s sleep time usually begins to shift toward night. At 3 months, a baby averages 5 hours of sleep during the day and 10 hours at night, usually with an interruption or two. About 90% of babies this age sleep through the night, meaning 6 to 8 hours in a row.

Babies are not always awake when they sound like they are; they can cry and make all sorts of other noises during light sleep. Even if they do wake up in the night, they may only be awake for a few minutes before falling asleep again on their own. Let them try. It’s best if they learn early to get themselves to sleep.

If a baby under 6 months old continues to cry for several minutes, it’s time to respond. He may be genuinely uncomfortable: hungry, wet, cold, or even sick. Routine nighttime awakenings for changing and feeding should be as quick and quiet as possible. Don’t provide any unnecessary stimulation, such as talking, playing, or turning on the lights. Encourage the idea that nighttime is for sleeping. You have to teach this, because your baby doesn’t care what time it is, as long as his needs are met.

It’s not too early to establish a simple bedtime routine. Any soothing activities, performed consistently and in the same order each night, can make up the routine. The baby will associate the activities with sleeping, and they will help him wind down. Ideally, he should be placed in his crib before he falls asleep. The routine should relax him, but you still want him to fall asleep on his own.

6 to 12 Months

At 6 months, an infant may nap about 3 hours during the day and sleep about 11 hours at night. At this age, you can begin to change your response to an infant who awakens and cries during the night. Give him 5 minutes to settle down on his own and go back to sleep. If he doesn’t, comfort him without picking him up (talk softly, rub his back), then leave – unless he appears to be sick. Sick babies need to be picked up and comforted.

If a baby is not sick and continues to cry, wait a little longer than 5 minutes, then repeat the short crib-side visit. After several days, your baby should find it easier to get back to sleep on his own. If a 6-month-old baby continues to wake up five or six times each night, it should be brought to the attention of his doctor.

Between 6 and 12 months, separation anxiety may become a major issue for your baby. This is when babies often become attached to a stuffed animal or blanket as a nighttime companion. The rules for nighttime awakenings are the same through a baby’s first birthday: don’t turn on the lights, don’t sing, talk, play, or feed. All these activities encourage repeat behavior. Stop in to check on a crying baby, and make sure he’s not sick or in need of a diaper change. Institute the 5-minute visit pattern if he continues to cry.

1 to 3 Years

From ages 1 to 3, most toddlers sleep about 10 to 13 hours. Separation anxiety, or just the desire to be up with Mom and Dad (and not miss anything), can motivate a child to stay awake. So can simple toddler-style contrariness.

Note the time of night when your toddler begins to show signs of sleepiness, and try establishing this as his regular bedtime. You don’t have to force a 2- or 3-year-old child to nap during the day, unless he gets cranky and overly tired.

Establishing a routine at bedtime helps a child relax and get ready for sleep. For a toddler or preschooler, the routine may be anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes long and include calming activities such as reading a story, bathing, and listening to soft music. Whatever the ritual is, your toddler will probably insist that it be the same every night for long periods. Just don’t allow rituals to become too long or too complicated. Whenever possible, allow your toddler to make bedtime choices within the routine: which pajamas to wear, which stuffed animal to take to bed, what music to play. This gives him a sense of control over the proceedings.

Even the best sleepers give parents an occasional wake-up call. Teething can awaken a toddler, and so can dreams – active dreaming begins at this age, and for the uninitiated, dreams can be pretty alarming. Further, nightmares are particularly frightening to a toddler, who cannot distinguish imagination from reality. (So carefully select what TV programs your toddler sees before bedtime.) Comfort and hold your child at these times. Let him talk about the dream if he wants to, and stay until he’s calm. Encourage a return to sleep as soon as possible.


Preschoolers sleep about 10 to 12 hours per night, but there is no reason to be completely rigid about which 10 to 12 hours they are. If a 5-year-old gets adequate rest at night, he no longer needs a daytime nap. Instead, a quiet time may be substituted. Most nursery schools and kindergartens have brief quiet periods when the children lie on mats or just rest.

A 5-year-old child may still have nightmares, and there may be nights when he has trouble falling asleep. Prepare a “nighttime kit” that includes activities to pass the time and relax your child. It might include a flashlight, a book, and a cassette player and story tape. Use the kit together, then put it in a special place in your child’s room where he can get to it in the middle of the night.

School-age Children

A 6-year-old child may need about 11 or 12 hours of sleep. An occasional source of bedtime difficulties at this age results from a child’s need for private time with his parents, without siblings around. A good time to give him this private time is a little before his bedtime, which is probably his own. His special time can be used to share confidences and have small discussions, which will also prepare him for sleep.

The amount of sleep needed decreases with age. Generally a 12-year-old needs only 10 hours, but it is up to parents to judge the amount of rest the child needs and see that he is in bed in time for sufficient sleep. Allow a school-age child to choose his bedtime on weekends, depending on the events planned for the following day.

While there is no one sure way to raise a good sleeper, every parent should be encouraged to know that most children have the ability to sleep well. The key is to persevere from early on to establish healthy sleep habits that may last a lifetime.

Establishing a Bedtime Routine

– Include a winding-down period in the routine.

– Stick to a bedtime, alerting your child both half an hour and 10 minutes beforehand.

– Allow your child to choose which pajamas to wear, stuffed animal to take to bed, etc.

– Consider playing soft, soothing music.

– Tuck your child into bed snugly for a feeling of security.

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