A Parents Guide to Sleeping

Toddler asleep

Getting your child to go to bed can be quite a battle. As soon as you mention the word ‘bed’ your child may run riot in a bid to show you how awake they are. Even if you get them into bed you may still have to fight to get your child to settle.

Typically children aged 1 to 2½ need about 11 hours of sleep a night and an hour and a half to two hour nap during the day. Most children go to bed between 7.00pm and 9.00pm and get up between 6.30am and 8.00am.

Children’s sleep patterns are different to adults and they naturally wake more often. That is why it is important that you help your child to learn to soothe themselves back to sleep.

Creating your bedtime routine

  • Sleep habits like any other behaviour need to be learned. Introducing a bedtime routine is important as your child will learn when bedtime is approaching. Choose a routine which suits both you and your child for example:

                     6.30… bath time

                     6.40… put on pyjamas

                     6.45… brush teeth

                     6.50… story in bed

                     7.00… tuck-in and goodnight kiss

  • Try to anticipate all your child’s usual (and reasonable) requests and make them part of your bedtime routine, for example having their favourite toy or comforter before settling into bed, having a night light by the bed etc.
  • Young children can also feel very anxious about separating from you at bedtime. This, alongside their growing desire to make their own decisions, can often result in them resisting going to bed. It may help if you let your child make some bedtime choices such as which pyjamas to wear or what story to read.
  • Choose relaxing activities to calm children down (not TV or iPad) such as singing soft lullabies, reading a book or telling a story. Stick to the routine every night and be firm so that your child realises that you mean what you say. Young children really need the consistency that this offers.
  • When it is time for your child to start the bedtime routine you may need to calmly but firmly take them to the bathroom or bedroom whether they want to start getting ready for bed or not.
  • Be realistic. No child will run happily to bed every night, so be prepared for a few struggles.
  • If your child is going to bed late and you want them to go to bed earlier it is best to bring forward the time gradually. Every few days start your child’s bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier until you gradually reach your target bedtime.
Parent reading

Approaches to sleep problems

Two of the most common sleep problems are difficulty falling asleep and frequent night waking. If you want your child to sleep through the night without calling for you, it is important to make sure that they learn how to settle themselves back down – by finding their thumb, cuddling their favourite toy etc.

If your child won’t settle in their own room you can help them by using the gradual withdrawal procedure.

The Gradual Withdrawal Procedure (for a child who will not go to sleep without you)

  • Having followed your bedtime routine, stay in the room with your child and sit down by their bed or cot.
  • Avoid talking to your child even if they talk to you. Once your child understands that you are not going to respond they will start to settle, and on following nights they will settle more quickly.
  • You may say ‘go to sleep’ once or twice, be gentle but firm, otherwise say nothing.
  • Stay with your child until they are asleep.
  • Follow this routine over the next few nights but each night move further away from the bed/cot – at this stage do not try to leave before your child is asleep or they will probably wake up and the whole process will have to start again.
  • Once your child accepts you sitting by the door try leaving before the child is fast asleep

This process of letting your child go to sleep, with you getting further and further from their bedside, will take a few days, but it will work so don’t give up and take it gradually.

You should be prepared for your child to present you with a variety of reasons for not going to sleep for example, I want a drink, I want to go to toilet, I want another story – these are excuses and it is best to simply ignore them.

If your child calls for you when they are going to sleep or during the night, use these simple checking routines:

  • If your child calls for you as they settle to sleep, don’t go in straight away – instead call back to them and tell them that you’re there, reassure them that they are safe and that you are near by. Do not rush into them the minute you hear them stirring as they need to learn to get back to sleep on their own.
  • If your child is crying (or wakes during the night) go back into the room, tell them that everything is okay but that it is time for sleep. First check that everything is alright then re-tuck them in without talking too much. Do not pick them up or cuddle them; be gentle but firm. Leave the room, let them cry for about 5-10 minutes before you check on them, do this repeatedly until they fall asleep – over the next few nights extend the time between each visit(five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes)

It may take a week or two but if you keep the routine going, your child should start falling asleep on their own.

If you have a partner, agree between you how to tackle your child’s sleep problems, if you’ve both agreed what’s best for your child it will be easier to stick to your plan.

Children's nightmares

Nightmares are quite common. They often begin between the ages of 18 months and three years. They may happen if your child is anxious about something or has been frightened by a TV programme or story. However, they are not usually a sign of emotional disturbance. After a nightmare your child will need comfort and reassurance.

Talk to your GP or health visitor if your child has a lot of nightmares and you don’t know why.

Night terrors

Night terrors can happen before the age of one, but they’re most common in children between three and eight years old. Usually, the child will scream or start thrashing around while they are still asleep. It usually happens after a child has been a sleep for a couple of hours. They may sit up and talk or look terrified while they are still asleep. Night terrors aren’t usually a sign of serious problems and your child(ren) will eventually grow out of them. They are not dangerous and won’t have any lasting effect.

Is there anything I shouldn't do?

Don’t let your child fall asleep on your lap drinking milk.

This will teach them that they need you and a drink to go to sleep if they wake in the night.

Don’t pick them up or take them downstairs or into your own bed.

Your child needs to learn to settle themselves, by picking them up, taking them downstairs or into your bed you are teaching them that they need you to settle and go back to sleep. If your child wakes or gets up, put them back to bed. Tell them that everything is okay, but now it’s sleep time - be gentle but firm.

Don’t hold, rock, cuddle or let your child rely on a dummy/bottle to go to sleep.

While these strategies work in the short term, these methods teach your child to depend on being put to sleep rather than falling asleep on their own.

Don’t allow your child to have late afternoon naps (once this is age appropriate).

Cut out late afternoon naps (i.e. after 2.00pm) otherwise your child will not be tired enough to go to sleep in the early evening.

What should I do if I am still worried

  • Talk to your health visitor or GP – they may have other ideas or may suggest you make an appointment at a sleep clinic.
  • Contact your local children centre for support and advice.


Save to shortlist

Page last reviewed: 27/03/2024

Back to top