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Early Childhood Sleep

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

A healthy diet is not the only thing that will help children continue to grow and develop physically, mentally, and socially. Children also need adequate amounts of sleep in order to allow their bodies time to recharge for each new day. Getting children to want to go to sleep is not always an easy task. Many young children need quite a bit of coaxing before they will crawl into bed and shut their eyes for the night. Their compliance can be helped along by setting up a good bedtime routine.

A well-planned bedtime routine prepares children mentally and physically to move from their active, exciting daytime adventures to quiet, nighttime sleep. The most important part of a planned bedtime routine is consistency. When caregivers use a routine consistently every night, children will learn to expect it. The routine itself will likely cause a calming effect, as children become comforted by learning to anticipate each step of the experience.

The bedtime routine begins by having children stop engaging in their stimulating daytime activities. Parents need to make a rule about the cutoff time for television, computer games, and rough and tumble play. Electronic activities may be less important to preschool-aged children, but setting this limit now will help enforce it into later years.

Many families find that starting the bedtime routine off with a bath is a good first step. With the right attitude and some interesting toys or games, bath time can be a lot of fun for everyone. Meanwhile, warm water and specially scented "calming" bath wash (found in many grocery and drug stores) can begin to lull little ones toward sleep.

As well, caregivers should carefully plan an evening snack. As mentioned previously, young children may not be able to eat a large portion at dinner and may, as a result, become hungry again before bedtime. The appropriate content and size of the bedtime snack will necessarily vary across children, as a little one who is too hungry or too full at bedtime will have a difficult time falling asleep. Furthermore, too much fluid before bedtime can cause accidents, even with potty-trained children. A nighttime wetting accident will rob children and parents of needed sleep. Tips on helping children to avoid bedwetting episodes can be found in our Toilet Training article.

Nighttime rituals such as reading offer children a perfect opportunity for one-on-one caregiver time. Reading together can help calm children down while fostering their love for books and learning. Some families may also use this time to encourage religious growth or education through prayers or reading of important texts. Others take this opportunity to sing soothing lullabies or simply hug and cuddle. Each of these activities can help strengthen family love and bonds while creating a safe and tranquil space for preschoolers.

Most experts believe that caregivers should not allow children to fall asleep with adults in their bedroom every night, as this may hinder children's ability to learn to self-soothe and fall asleep easily on their own. Instead, caregivers should help youngsters relax enough to feel sleepy and then say, "Goodnight," and, "I love you," while walking out the door. Often, young children at this developmental stage will feel more comfortable if they have a night light in their room or a comfort object (e.g., a stuffed animal or special blanket) with them in bed. Even with these preparations, nightmares and significant fears are relatively common at this age range. For more information on children's fears and other emotional development during the preoperational stage, see our article on Preoperational Child Development.

Some families feel fervently that the best way to ensure the best sleep for everyone is by creating a "family bed" (i.e., allowing young children to sleep in their caregivers' bed or beside the bed at night). Some families believe that the family bed is a natural way to promote family bonding, since this is a traditional practice in many developing parts of the world and was typical during American history as well. Families need to carefully think through the potential benefits and risks to all parties involved before establishing a family bed, however. Caregivers' and children's sleep needs, as well as everyone's safety, is important. Whatever arrangement families choose, they should be consistent every night (in other words, it is not a good idea to share a family bed on some nights, and then send the children to their own beds on other nights). Inconsistency will only frustrate young children and ultimately backfire when it comes to helping them develop good sleep habits.

Usually, caregivers quickly learn to adapt their schedules to their young children's unique sleep needs. Some children need fewer hours of sleep at night, but must recharge with a long nap in the afternoon. Other kids rarely need naps, but require a long uninterrupted block of nighttime sleep. In general, young children ages 2 to 5 years need 10 to 12 hours of sleep each day. Between the ages of 5 to 7 years, young children need approximately 9 to 11 hours. Caregivers should try (as much as possible) to keep their children on a relatively consistent sleep schedule. Allowing children to stay up late or miss naps occasionally due to special events is okay. However, a chaotic, inconsistent schedule will usually lead to missed sleep and cranky and lethargic children.

Young children in the preoperational stage eventually reach a point where it becomes time for them to sleep in a "big bed." Often, this change is prompted by the expected arrival of a new sibling, who needs to use the crib. If possible, caregivers should attempt to separate these these two important life-altering events. In other words, move your older child to his or her new bed weeks in advance of the arrival of the new baby (if that can be accomplished). Young children who are interested in and able to get out of their cribs should also be switched to a big bed to prevent accidents and injuries. Parents who are concerned about young children rolling out of a new bed can install inexpensive bed rails and/or put long body pillows near the side of the bed.

Most children become extremely excited about moving to a "big bed," as this is an accomplishment that demonstrates that they're growing up. However, if children show some uncertainty about moving to a new bed, caregivers can slow down their transition by allowing them to first nap in the big bed, while continuing to sleep in the crib at night. Later, children can move to full time sleeping in the big bed as they become comfortable.