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Healthy sleep in children fact sheet

Healthy sleep in children

Sleep is essential for growth, immunity, learning and memory and is important for helping a child heal and recover. Healthy sleep means a good quantity and quality of sleep, with regular sleep routines.

What happens if my child doesn’t get enough sleep?

A child who does not get enough healthy sleep may experience difficulties with concentration, memory, regulating their emotions, organising tasks and creative thinking. These children may be easily distracted, irritable, disruptive or generally hyperactive and restless. A lack of healthy sleep has been linked to mental health problems, poor growth, excessive weight gain, and reduced school performance.

How much sleep does a child need?

Age Recommended sleep hours per 24-hour period
Infants: 4 to 12 months 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
Toddlers: 1 to 2 years 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
Pre-schoolers: 3 to 5 years 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
Grade-schoolers: 6 to 12 years 9 to 11 hours
Teens: 13 to 18 years 8 to 10 hours

Infants from birth to three months of age have a wide variation in sleep duration and patterns; infants in this age group generally sleep 14 to 17 hours daily (including naps). It is important to remember that these figures are a guide only and that each child will have their own individual sleep requirement. Children with a development disorder may need an amount of sleep appropriate for their developmental age rather than their actual age.

Napping

From birth to two months of age, the length of one period of sleep can vary from 30 minutes to three to four hours. This is throughout the day and night. From about two months onwards, babies start to sleep for longer periods, particularly at night, as they start to develop their internal day/night (circadian) rhythm. This rhythm favours sleep at night and being more awake in the day. From about six months, babies have their longest sleeps at night and can typically sleep for a period of up to six hours or more at night. From two months to 12 months, the number of daytime naps reduces typically from three to four naps, down to two naps. Morning naps usually stop between 12 and 18 months. It is normal for children to have a daytime nap until three to five years of age. Consistent daytime naps after five years of age are not normal.

Good sleep habits

Have a regular sleep pattern. Your child should keep regular times for going to bed and waking up. These times should be the same or similar on weekends and holidays. The 24-hour body clock that controls sleepiness and wakefulness works best if there is a regular sleep routine.

Have a consistent pre-bedtime routine. This will help your child settle and prepare for sleep. It may include reading quietly, a warm bath or a warm milk drink. Avoid exercise or stimulating play in the hour before bedtime.

Limit access to electronic devices (including TV, smart-phones, tablets and computer games) and bright light exposure in the one to two hours prior to bedtime. Exposure to bright light or the LED light from electronic devices can reduce the evening levels of the sleep promoting hormone, melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Electronic devices should remain out of the bedroom where possible.

Ensure the sleeping environment is quiet, dark and comfortable. Children should sleep in their own bed. If a night light is required, a red light is preferred. If background sound is required, soothing, gentle music is preferred. The bedroom should be used for sleep only and not study or play if possible.

Daytime exercise and natural light exposure may improve sleep at night. Children who are inactive through the day and/or are not exposed to natural sunlight, particularly early in the morning, may have difficulty falling asleep at night.

Limit caffeine intake. Caffeine is a stimulant that prevents sleep. Caffeine is present in tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks and some soft drinks. Caffeine is best avoided in children and certainly should be avoided after midday to avoid interfering with sleep.

Self-settling
It is important that babies learn to go to sleep in their cot by themselves at the start of the night, so they are more able to self-soothe themselves back to sleep. Children wake at night partly because they’re worried about being separated from their parents. This is normal. Children need to overcome this worry as a step towards becoming more independent sleepers. If your child is routinely waking in the night, they should be returned to bed with minimal parental attention. This can be difficult to enforce and emotionally challenging, but it is important that parents remain firm and consistent. Praising your child in the morning for staying in bed at night can help reinforce the good behaviour.

When should I take my child to the doctor?

  • If your child is sleeping too much or too little.
  • If your child has difficulty falling asleep or wakes frequently at night.
  • Your child has symptoms of inadequate sleep which may include poor school performance, difficulty with attention and concentration, behavioural problems, hyperactive or restless behaviour, or unusual daytime tiredness including regular daytime naps after five years of age.
  • Your child snores loudly, pauses while breathing or has difficulty with breathing during sleep.
  • You have concerns with your child’s movement or behaviour in sleep.

Useful links

Sleep podcasts for parents
Sleep and Settling help for babies and toddlers
Responsive settling video series
Sleep Health Foundation
The period of purple crying

Contact us

Respiratory and Sleep Medicine (5a)
Level 5, Queensland Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street
South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 2300
e: chq_respsleep@health.qld.gov.au

In an emergency, always call 000.

If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Resource No: FS347. Developed by Respiratory and Sleep Medicine, Children’s Health Queensland. Updated: June 2019. All information contained in this sheet has been supplied by qualified professionals as a guideline for care only. Seek medical advice, as appropriate, for concerns regarding your child’s health.

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