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Sleep in early childhood

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Managing sleep for babies and children is one of the most common concerns for parents. Many worry about whether they are doing the right thing if their child doesn’t sleep soundly all through the night.

There are many different ways parents can help babies and children to sleep, and patterns vary between cultures and families. What matters most is that bedtime is relaxed and comfortable and that babies and children have comfort when they need it and that they are safe. If things aren’t working well for you, some of the following information may help.

The content of this topic was developed by Parenting SA Women’s and Children’s Health Network Telephone (08) 8303 1660 www.parenting.sa.gov.au 


Some facts about sleep

Types of sleep

There are two main kinds of sleep – light sleep and deep sleep. Light sleep is when we dream and ‘go over’ the day’s events and wake feeling refreshed. It is also the kind of sleep where we wake more easily. With babies this is 80% of sleep, but by adolescence it is only about 20% of sleep.

Deep sleep is when growing and healing takes place. It is much harder to wake people from this kind of sleep.

Each night we all go through sleep cycles from light sleep to deep sleep then light again. Babies move through these two types of sleep but their cycle is shorter. Toddlers usually take about an hour for each sleep pattern or cycle.

It is between the stages of light and deep sleep that as adults we may pull up another blanket or roll over and then fade back into sleep. For babies and toddlers this may be where they cry and need help to resettle back to sleep.

How long do babies and children sleep?

Sleep is very individual and can vary a lot at any age. Children in one family may have very different sleeping needs to those in another family Sometimes a child’s sleep pattern does not match their parents’ expectations.

The best way to work out how much sleep your baby or child needs is to keep a sleep diary. Write down the times they sleep and you can get an average of the sleep they need each day.

Getting ready for sleep

Most of us have some kind of winding down time before we go to sleep. This can also help babies and children to relax and settle into sleep.

Try to make the last hour or so before bed a time for quiet, relaxing activities. Babies generally find comfort and security in a bath, a quiet story, a song and special goodnight kiss. Routines can often help parents too in organising bedtimes and so reduce tension and stress.

Settling babies

Parents need to be aware of how their baby is feeling and give them the amount of comfort they need to settle to sleep. Sometimes babies settle without any help and other times they may be ‘grizzly’ and need some gentle patting or rocking. If they are crying and very distressed, it is best to be with them and comfort them.

Young babies often give very small signals for what they need. Parents soon get to know their baby’s signals and need to respond to them. This says to baby that they have been heard. Babies need to know you will respond to them when they cry in order to feel safe and secure. This helps their brain development and to build a close bond with you. 

Babies’ and young children’s sleep needs change very quickly as they grow. Parents need to adapt to these changes.

Learn to know your child’s cry – when it is just a settling ‘grizzle’, and when it is a ‘real’ cry that you need to attend to. Responding to babies in this way is called ‘responsive settling’. Parents are encouraged to take this approach rather than respond to babies on the basis of time, as in a ‘controlled crying’ approach.

Over time, parents can help babies learn to go to sleep by themselves. Put baby down when they are awake and calm, or only slightly ‘grizzly’. Give them some gentle comfort and slowly withdraw. Babies will need less comfort as they learn to go to sleep by themselves.

Night waking

For many parents just knowing that night waking is ‘normal’ in the early years helps remove some of the stress. Each family needs to deal with night waking in the way that best suits them. Often babies and children just need to know someone is near and they will settle back to sleep.

Sometimes night waking can be due to pain such as ear-ache, a cold or teething, so check for this if your child’s behaviour is not their usual pattern. With pain, your child may not settle even if you are there to comfort, or may settle for a short time and then wake again.

It is important to meet your child’s need for comfort in the way that gives you the best rest. Parents also need sleep and broken sleep can bring added stress to family life. It is also important to ask for help and support from others, to help get you through when your sleep is reduced or broken. Support may be available from your partner, other family members, friends or community agencies.

There are other topics on this site Nightmares , Sleep walking and sleep talking , and Night terrors - sleep terrors .

Safe sleeping

It is important that babies are safe while they sleep. Babies may get into dangerous situations while they sleep. They can suffocate under bedding and not be able to move out of the situation.

Evidence shows there are things parents can do to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and fatal sleep accidents.

Babies should always sleep on their back from birth, never on their tummy or side.
Put baby on their back to sleep. Place baby half way down the cot with their feet almost touching the end. Make up the bedclothes so that they just come up to baby’s shoulders and their head cannot go under the bedclothes. Use light bedding (not doonas, thick quilts or heavy blankets). Babies who have their heads covered, whose breathing is blocked in some way, or who become too hot, may be more likely to die suddenly.

Sleep babies with their face and head uncovered (no doonas, pillows, lambs wool, bumpers or soft toys). 
Babies do not need a pillow to sleep comfortably. A safe sleeping bag can be helpful instead of blankets. Remember babies cannot get themselves into a safe position, e.g. if the bedclothes cover their head or large toys or pets smother them. For this reason it is important not to leave your baby asleep alone in the room with a pet.

Avoid exposing babies to tobacco smoke before birth and after.

Provide a safe sleeping environment night and day (safe cot, safe mattress, safe bedding).
Choose cots, beds and bedding that meet Australian Standards (see SIDS and Kids website http://www.sidsandkids.org/ ). Avoid clothing that has long strings, ribbons or cords (less than 10cm long if a dummy is attached to clothing).

Sleep baby in their own cot or bassinet next to the parent’s bed for the fi rst 6 to 12 months of life
Evidence shows that when babies sleep in a bed with a parent there is an increased risk of SIDS and fatal sleeping accidents. The SIDS and Kids Safe Sleep program therefore recommends that babies sleep in a cot next to their parent’s bed for the first six to twelve months of life. If you are feeding, cuddling or playing with your baby in bed, remember to place them into their cot before you go to sleep. This is particularly important if you are extremely tired, a heavy sleeper, very overweight, taking medicines that make you sleep more deeply, or drinking alcohol. It is also very dangerous to sleep on a sofa with your baby, as their head can easily become caught between the seat and back of the sofa.

There is more in the topic Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy (including SIDS).


Some babies settle better if they are wrapped in a light sheet, while others do not. It can help young babies develop a more settled sleep pattern and older unsettled babies may sleep better.

Wrapping helps to prevent arm movements that can disturb sleep. (With older babies it is usually better to leave their arms out). Make sure that the wrapping is fi rm but not too tight so babies can bend their knees.

Have a look at the topic Wrapping babies for more about this.

Sleep at different ages

Sleep at 0–3 months

In the fi rst few weeks, many babies sleep much of the day and night. They have little idea of day or night and most wake regularly around the clock every two or three hours needing a feed and attention.

Have a look at the topic Sleep birth to 3 months

Sleep at 3–6 months

 At this age some babies have two or three longish sleeps during the day, while others just have short naps. A few may sleep 12 hours without interruption. Some manage 8 hours, while many others wake fairly regularly for feeds. Most have learnt to sleep more at night than they do during the day.

Have a look at the topic Sleep 3 to 6 months

Sleep at 6 months – 3 years

Some babies and toddlers can sleep through the night. Some toddlers are the ‘sleepy owls’ who need more sleep, while others are the ‘larks’ and get by with much less sleep and this is OK. Many still wake once or twice, or several times at night. Between the ages of 2–3 years 41% of young children wake once or twice a night, with a few still waking more often.

Have a look at the topic Sleep 6 months to 3 years

Sleep at 3–6 years

 Many children of this age need about 10–12 hours sleep at night. Bedtime may vary a lot. Some may go to bed at 6.30pm, while many go to bed later. Wake-up time may be early or late and those who go to bed later tend to wake later. Young children may still need a daytime sleep as well. By kindergarten age only a few still have a daytime nap.

Have a look at the topic Sleep 3 years to 5 years

Looking after yourself

Caring for babies and young children is tiring and demands a great deal of tolerance, understanding and patience. Most parents say that their need for sleep in the early years is one of their greatest needs. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help from family and friends. If you feel that you might hurt your child make sure they are in a safe place and leave until you have calmed down. Contact someone immediately if you feel unable to manage.

Want more information?

Parent Helpline 
Phone 1300 364 100 Advice on child health and parenting

Child and Family Health Service 
Phone 1300 733 606 9am–4.30pm Mon–Fri for an appointment 

Kidsafe SA Phone
8161 6318 www.kidsafesa.com.au 
Information and products on child safety.

SIDS and Kids
Phone 8369 0155 www.sidsandkids.org 
Information about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and safe sleeping

Parenting SA
For more Parent Easy Guides, e.g. ‘Sleep disturbance’ ‘About babies’, ‘Bedwetting’, ‘Living with toddlers’, and for parent groups in your area

Raising Children Network 
For information about children and parenting, including many articles on sleep

Books for parents

Women's and Children's Health Network.


The content of this topic was developed by Parenting SA Women’s and Children’s Health Network Telephone (08) 8303 1660 www.parenting.sa.gov.au

Parent Easy Guides are free in South Australia 

© Department for Health and Ageing, Government of South Australia. All rights

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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