A good night’s sleep is about getting to sleep and staying asleep. Most children wake up by themselves in the morning if they’re getting enough good-quality sleep.
Getting to sleep
Most children fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed. How long it takes to get to sleep can depend on how sleepy your child’s body is, and also on their daytime and bedtime routine. Some bedtime routines help your child wind down before bedtime, so they can fall asleep more easily.
During the night, your child cycles between light sleep, deep sleep and dream sleep.
Your child has most of their deep sleep during the first few hours after falling asleep. During the second half of the night, their sleep consists of light sleep and dream sleep.
Your child wakes briefly as they cycle between light and dream sleep, but they might not be aware of being awake. To stay asleep, your child needs to be able to fall back to sleep by themselves after these brief waking episodes.
1. Set up a bedtime routine
A regular bedtime routine starting around the same time each night encourages good sleep patterns. A routine of bath, story and bed can help younger children feel ready for sleep. For older children, the routine might include a quiet chat with you about the day then some time alone relaxing before lights out.
2. Relax before bedtime
Encourage your child to relax before bedtime. Older children might like to wind down by reading a book, listening to gentle music or practising breathing for relaxation. If your child takes longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, they might need a longer wind-down time before turning the lights out to go to sleep.
3. Keep regular sleep and wake times
Keep your child’s bedtimes and wake-up times within 1-2 hours of each other each day. This helps to keep your child’s body clock in a regular pattern. It’s a good idea for weekends and holidays, as well as school days.
4. Keep older children’s naps early and short
Most children stop napping at 3-5 years of age. If your child over five years is still napping during the day, try to keep the nap to no longer than 20 minutes and no later than early afternoon. Longer and later naps can make it harder for children to get to sleep at night.
5. Make sure your child feels safe at night
If your child feels scared about going to bed or being in the dark, you can praise and reward them whenever they are brave. Avoiding scary TV shows, movies and computer games can help too. Some children with bedtime fears feel better when they have a night light.
6. Check noise and light in your child’s bedroom
A quiet, dimly lit space is important for good sleep. Check whether your child’s bedroom is too light or noisy for sleep. Blue light from televisions, computer screens, phones and tablets might suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness. It probably helps to turn these off at least one hour before bedtime and to keep screens out of your child’s room at night.
7. Avoid the clock
If your child is checking the time often, encourage them to move their clock or watch to a spot where they can’t see it.
8. Eat the right amount at the right time
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 for them to get to sleep. In the morning, a healthy breakfast helps to kick-start your child’s body clock at the right time.
9. Get plenty of natural light in the day
Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. Bright light suppresses melatonin. This helps your child feel awake and alert during the day and sleepy towards bedtime.
10. Avoid caffeine
Caffeine is in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola. Encourage your child to avoid these things in the late afternoon and evening, and don’t offer them at this time.
It’s always a good idea to praise your child when you notice they are trying to make changes to sleep patterns or trying out a new routine.
If your child has worries and anxieties that stop them from relaxing at bedtime, there are a couple of things you can do.
If there’s a quick and easy answer to your child’s problem, you can deal with it straight away. For example, ‘Yes, you can have Emma over to play on the weekend even though Grandma is staying with us’.
But if the problem needs more time, it’s probably best to acknowledge your child’s feelings and gently plan to sort things out in the morning. For example, ‘I understand that you’re worried about whether you can swim 50 m at the swimming carnival next week. Let’s talk about it in the morning and work out what to do’.