Sleep is no doubt an important topic for parents, who often wake up tired after another sleepless night with their baby or toddler. That's why in this article we are going to discuss how to establish good sleep habits for your child. If you manage to do so, you help them not just grow up, but grow up to be healthier, happier and smarter.

How is children’s sleep different?

The ideal image of what a child's sleep looks like is a kiss goodnight, lights off, and a child sound asleep in their bed until morning. The reality, however, is quite different. Children often just refuse to fall asleep, tossing and turning endlessly. When they finally fall asleep, instead of sleeping soundly, they wake up multiple times in the middle of the night.

This is because there is a great difference between children's and adults' sleep. While adults sleep, they go through alternating sleep phases and usually do not wake up between them. These are the phases of light sleep, deep sleep and REM (“rapid eye movement”) sleep, when dreaming is intense. Together, they form one sleep cycle, which lasts about 90 minutes.

In the case of babies, however, the sleep cycle lasts only around 50 minutes. It’s not until children turn 5 that the duration of their sleep cycles begins to resemble adult sleep. In addition, babies and toddlers can’t transition as easily from cycle to cycle and often wake up in the phases of light sleep and "REM" sleep.

In the case of newborns sleep is even more distinct. Since they just came out of the womb, newborns’ bodies can’t yet distinguish day from night. They need a few months to adjust. That’s why you can’t be mad at them for keeping you awake at night.  

Besides, we shouldn't forget hunger, which is the main reason newborns wake up at night. They need to feed often because their stomachs are very small. Even if you are lucky enough to have a newborn who sleeps for longer periods of time, the experts' advice is to wake them up for feeding. During the first weeks after birth it’s very important to establish a healthy weight gain and you shouldn’t leave your newborn without food for more than 3-4 hours.

Why is sleep so important for children? (and adults, too)

If it's so difficult to put your child to bed, why not just let them fall asleep whenever they want? Besides, children often insist, "I'm not sleepy yet!"

No matter how appealing this idea may be, you shouldn’t forget how extremely important sleep is and that it's our responsibility as parents to set good sleep habits for our children. There is a popular Bulgarian proverb which says "Children need sleep to grow up." To make it more accurate, we should re-phrase it as "Children need sleep to grow up with better memory, concentration, mood, and immune system.

Sleep is the time for the body to recover, and for the brain to process and store everything learned during the day. For children who are constantly moving and absorbing huge amounts of new information every day, these hours are of key importance. Children who get enough sleep are better at learning and remembering. During the day they are more alert, energetic and in a better mood. On the other hand, the lack of sleep leads to problems with concentration, memory and behavior. The immune system weakens and the body is more susceptible to disease.

Setting an early bedtime is also very important. The most restorative part of the sleep cycle is deep sleep. That’s also the time when the greatest amount of growth hormones are released in the brain. Deep sleep occurs shortly after falling asleep and children get most deep sleep before midnight. Hence, the earlier your child goes to bed, the longer they will be in the phase of deep restorative sleep. This means that we can build on the popular Bulgarian proverb further by adding, "Children need to sleep early to grow taller.”

What time should children go to bed?
No later than 9pm. That way, moms and dads are also well-rested.

Exactly how much sleep is necessary?

Babies and children need plenty of sleep to grow and develop. The following table lists the recommended hours of sleep for each age. These include night sleep as well as daytime naps.

It’s good to follow these guidelines keeping in mind that every child is different. In the case of newborns, who don’t have any established routine yet, the total hours of sleep per day may vary a lot. Besides, sleep overall is broken up into many bits and pieces of short naps.

AgeHours of sleep per dayNumber of naps
0-3 months14-17 hours4-8 naps
4-12 months12-16 hours2-4 naps
1-2 years11-14 hours2 naps
3-5 years10-13 hours0-1 naps

How can you help your child sleep better?

In order to sleep well, your child needs above all a good daily routine, consistent with the age requirements. When such a routine is well established, children know when it’s time to get up and go to bed, because the same thing repeats every day. Their bodies adjust accordingly and they learn how to follow their sleepy cues instead of resisting them.  

A must-have in your sleep routine are bedtime rituals. These repetitive actions happen every time when your child goes to bed. They signal the body that it’s time to fall asleep soon and help it relax. In addition, the predictability of rituals gives children a sense of security and makes it easier for them to fall asleep on their own.

Bedtime rituals are not only beneficial, but also fun for kids. They are the favorite thing that makes them slip into bed sooner. One of the best rituals is undoubtedly reading bedtime stories. It simultaneously calms the body, stimulates brain development and gives a great opportunity to snuggle up together.

You can learn more about why, how and what to read to babies and children from 0 to 5 years here.

Other suitable rituals are singing a song, telling a story, a light massage. Getting ready for bed itself, including brushing teeth, bathtime, changing diapers, putting on pajamas, and more, is also part of the evening ritual. As for daytime sleep, rituals can be shorter, such as looking out the window or pulling the curtains. At both daytime and nighttime, it's nice to end with a short phrase like "Sweet dreams" or "Good night."

What else helps children sleep better? It’s common knowledge that sleep is best when it’s dark and quiet. Exposure to light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone, while noise fragments sleep and worsens its quality. Sleeping in one's own bed, if possible, also leads to fewer awakenings. Falling asleep quickly happens when children are tired, but not overtired. If you go past the usual bedtime, you risk your child becoming more cranky, impatient and uncooperative.

Which practices disrupt sleep? Contrary to some beliefs, eating a lot at dinner worsens the quality of sleep because it causes problems with digestion. You should not overfeed your baby before sleep in the hope that a full stomach will lead to longer sleep. At about 6 months, babies already wake up at night more out of habit than hunger.

Perhaps the most common bad practice these days is watching TV before bed. You just can't expect your child to fall asleep peacefully right after screen time. Even if their body looks at rest in front of the screen, their brain is far from relaxed. In addition, there is evidence that blue light from screens lowers sleep hormone levels and suppresses the feeling of drowsiness.

For a good night's sleep, turn off all electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed.


Cover photo by Annie Spratt from Unsplash

"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria.

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