Sleep Challenges

Sleep is important to a child’s health, well-being and ability to learn. As children grow, their sleep needs change and with support from their parents, children can develop healthy independent sleep habits.

Sleep challenges of toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Children move through sleep cycles at night and there are natural wakeful times.
  • If your child is used to being fed, being rocked or held until he is asleep, this may become a habit and they may want that in the middle of the night.
  • Learning a new bedtime routine may be difficult and take some time to become habit. Keeping your actions in the night consistent will help your child realize that when he wakes, he is safe and can go back to sleep.
  • It is important to respond to your child in the middle of the night if you suspect they are waking because of illness/injury; or has a dirty diaper or is too cold or too hot.

Top 5 tips to improve your child's sleep

  1. Establish a routine.
  2. Avoid letting your child get overtired.
  3. When your child wakes keep it brief and positive.
  4. Use a comfort object like a blanket or teddy bear.
  5. Help your child learn to fall asleep on his/her own.

Toddlers:

  • Children between one and two and a half years of age will gradually reduce their total daily sleep time to 12 or 13 hours–usually 11 hours at night, with an afternoon nap lasting 1 to 2 hours.
  • They often go from having two naps a day to one.

Preschoolers:

  • Children between the ages of two and a half and five have decreased their total sleep hours to 11 to 12 hours with about 1/3 of children napping until the age of four or five.
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  • Choose a regular bedtime.
  • Give yourself at least half an hour each night to complete the bedtime routine
  • Give your child a “heads up” that it is time to start getting ready for bed.
  • Plan a predictable calming routine for bedtime and make it as consistent as possible each night. Include activities like a healthy snack, bath, brushing teeth and reading a bedtime story.
  • Limit beverages to water or milk. Avoid cocoa, juice or sweet treats before bed.
  • Have uninterrupted quiet time just before bedtime; include activities like reading stories, singing songs, playing soft music or gentle talking.
  • Make sure your child’s room is a comfortable temperature and use a night light if your child is afraid of the dark.
  • Let your child have a transition or cuddle object like a blanket or favourite stuffed animal to snuggle.
  • Turn out the lights, say goodnight and leave your child’s room while they are drowsy but still awake. Reassure them that you will see them in the morning.
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  • Choose a sleep routine that best suits the needs of your family. It is important to decide on a sleep routine together as a family and if your child is old enough, include them in the planning.
  • Set consistent limits and follow through with your set routine. Anticipate requests for one more drink, to stay up longer, needing to use the washroom or one more story.
  • Maintain regular routines during the day that include lots of active play or outdoor time to help your child be sleepy and ready for bed at night.
  • Avoid letting your child get overtired or very active just before bed as it can make it more difficult for them to settle down in the evening.
  • Always respond to your child if you think he or she may be ill. A change in sleep patterns sometimes indicates illness.
  • Attend to any physical discomforts like a dirty diaper, cold or hot room.
  • Keep the bed a positive place for your child. Avoid sending a child to bed as punishment. They will have negative associations with going to bed if it is used as a place to be when they are “bad”.
  • Anticipate sleep behaviour changes if there are changes in the child’s life like a new sibling, parents returning to work, new daycare or babysitter or traveling away from home.
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  • Children move through sleep cycles at night and there are natural wakeful times.
  • If your child is used to being fed, being rocked or held until he is asleep, this may become a habit and they may want that in the middle of the night.
  • Teaching your child to fall asleep on his own is important.
  • When your child wakes and cries out to you in the middle of the night, keep your interaction with them brief, reassure them that they are safe, you will see them in the morning, say goodnight and leave.
  • Learning a new bedtime routine may be difficult and take some time to become habit. Keeping your actions in the night consistent will help your child realize that when he wakes, he is safe and can go back to sleep.
  • Having a comfort object, such as a blanket or teddy bear, can be helpful in learning to settle down on their own.
  • It is important to respond to your child in the middle of the night if you suspect he is waking because of illness/injury or has a dirty diaper or is too cold or too hot.
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  • It is important when your child gets up out of bed that you calmly return them to bed.
  • Do not change the routine by allowing them to come to your bed to cuddle with you. Calmly return them to their room, provide reassurance that you are still there, you love them, but it is time for sleep.
  • Keep your interaction with your child brief (1-2 minutes) and reassuring.
  • Ignore the whining, crying or protests. Set limits and make them consistent each night.
  • It takes about half an hour for children to fall asleep, so it is important they find ways to keep calm until they fall asleep on their own. For instance, he can be allowed to quietly look at books or listen to music.
  • Reassure your child you will check in on them every few minutes and follow through. It will give them a sense of security that you will return, and will keep them from repeatedly calling out to you.
  • Praise them the next morning for staying in bed. Some parents have found it helpful to set up a positive reinforcement program, like a sticker, for each night their child successfully stays in bed.
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  • Nightmares peak in children between the ages of four and six.
  • It is important to comfort your child when they have a nightmare. Go to their room to comfort them, reassure them you are nearby and that they are safe.
  • Don’t make light of their scary dreams by telling them they are silly. The dreams are very real to them.
  • Let your child tell you about the dream if they want.
  • Help your child come up with a new ending to the dream, one that empowers them, gives them courage and sends the bad dreams away.
  • Help them to think of something that makes them feel happy, like recalling a pleasant memory.
  • Identifying the source of the nightmares can be helpful in reducing them. Try to determine if a child is experiencing stress, such as family conflict, changes in routine, illness or trouble at child care or school. Monitor TV shows and video games for violence that may scare your child. If nightmares become a consistent problem, it is best to consult, your family physician or pediatrician.
  • HaltonParents Blog: From screaming child to midnight magic (external link)
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  • A night terror does not usually have dream content.
  • It most often occurs one to four hours after a child goes to sleep, the soundest part of sleep.
  • The night terror is an emotional experience. The child often wakes in a state of panic, is sweaty, has a racing heartbeat, and is very agitated and frightened.
  • The child will often thrash about, have wild bulging eyes and be screaming or crying.
  • A night terror lasts from 10-30 minutes.
  • A child experiencing a night terror may not seem awake and often does not recall the experience in the morning.
  • You can try to comfort your child in a night terror, although they may push you away.
  • Make sure your child is safe, stay with your child and minimize interaction if it seems to be distressing him more.
  • Stress in your child’s life may increase the frequency of night terrors.
  • Consult your family physician or pediatrician with any concerns you may have.
  • HaltonParents Blog - From screaming child to midnight magic (external link)
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Contact HaltonParents at Halton Region

A central resource for parents where you can speak directly with a public health nurse:

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