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Sleep Problems in Children: Tips for Parents

Understanding your child's sleep issues

The first year

Newborn babies average 16 to 18 hours of sleep a day, spread out over the course of about five sleep episodes.  By 2 months of age, nearly half stay asleep or rest quietly for at least 5 hours during the night.  By the end of the first year, most children are down to one long sleep period at night, and a morning and afternoon nap, altogether about 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day.

Ages 1 to 3

  • Put your child to bed in a darkened, quiet room.  Some children need a special blanket or favorite toy to fall asleep initially and provide comfort when awakening at night.
  • Say good night and leave the room.
  • If your child cries, wait 5 minutes before going back into the room.
  • Stay in room for 2 to 3 minutes so your child knows you're there, but don't pick them up.  Keep conversation to a minimum.  Then leave, even if child is still crying.
  • If crying continues, wait 15 minutes before returning.  Stay briefly and leave again.
  • If crying continues, wait 15 minutes before going back in.
  • Use the same routine during middle-of-the-night awakenings and at naptime.
  • Your leaving and returning show your confidence in your child's ability to function independently.  At the same time, it provides reassurance that you are not going away forever.  Experts say crying during the learning process won't harm your child psychologically.

Ages 3 to 5

  • Avoid exciting activities and scary stories.
  • Tell your child when the time is almost up, or you approach the end of the story.
  • Resist requests for "one more story" or "another drink of water".  Be consistent from night to night.  Your child will learn the rules only if you stick to them.
  • If your child won't stay in bed, use the "door closing" approach.  Tell your child that he or she must stay in bed or you will close the door. Don't lock your child in; that's too scary.  Simply hold the door for a minute before opening it and restating the rule: as long as the child stays in bed, the door stays open.  It's under the child's control.  If the child won't stay in bed, keep the door closed longer.  You can talk through the door and provide encouragement.

Ages 6 to 12

  • During these years, sleep problems subside.  Most children fall asleep fast, sleep soundly and are fully alert throughout their waking hours.
  • A major problem during these years is bedtime.  Children may pushback bedtime to watch TV, read or do homework.
  • There is no arbitrary number of hours of sleep that is best for everyone.  Some kids need less sleep than others.  It's a mistake to make a child go to bed before he or she is ready for sleep, but a sleepy child is cause for concern.
  • Insufficient sleep may make a child irritable or cranky
  • Sleepiness may also be the first symptom of a neurological disorder, narcolepsy, or a breathing disorder, sleep apnea.

Ages 12 to 20

  • These are the years of the most rapid body growth and development after infancy.  Studies show that teenagers need to sleep an hour more each day than they did in their pre-teen years.  If permitted to sleep as long as they wish, teens average about 9 hours of sleep a night.
  • Two sleep disorders emerge during the teen years, Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Narcolepsy.
The American Sleep Disorders Association