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Sleep problems in young children

Lots of young children find it difficult to settle down to sleep and will wake up during the night.

For some people, this might not be a problem. But if you or your child are suffering from lack of sleep, you may like to try some of these suggestions.

Every child is different, so only do what you feel comfortable with and what you think will suit your child.

If your child won't go to bed

  • Decide what time you want your child to go to bed.
  • Close to the time that your child normally falls asleep, start a 20-minute "winding down" bedtime routine. Bring this forward by 5-10 minutes a week – or 15 minutes if your child is in the habit of going to bed very late – until you get to the bedtime you want.
  • Set a limit on how much time you spend with your child when you put them to bed. For example, read only one story, then tuck your child in and say goodnight.
  • Give your child their favourite toy, dummy (if they use one) or comforter before settling into bed.
  • Leave a beaker of water within reach and a dim light on if necessary.
  • If your child gets up, keep taking them back to bed again with as little fuss as possible.
  • Try to be consistent.
  • You may have to repeat this routine for several nights.

If your child keeps waking during the night

Lots of under-fives go through periods of waking at night. Some will just go back to sleep on their own, while others will cry or want company.

If this happens, try to work out why your child is waking up:

  • Is it hunger? If your child is a year or older, a bowl of cereal and milk last thing at night might help them sleep through the night.
  • Are they afraid of the dark? You could use a nightlight or leave a landing light on.
  • Is your child waking up because they're scared or having nightmares? If so, try to find out if something is bothering them.
  • Is your child too hot or too cold? Adjust their bedclothes or the heating in the room and see if that helps.

If there's no obvious cause and your child continues to wake up, cry or demand company, you could try some of the following suggestions:

  • scheduled waking – if your child wakes up at the same time every night, try waking them 15-60 minutes before this time, then settle them back to sleep.
  • let your child sleep in the same room as a brother or sister – if you think your child may be lonely and their brother or sister doesn't object, put them in the same room. This can help them both sleep through the night.
  • tackle it together – if you have a partner, agree between you how to tackle your child's sleeping problems. You don't want to try to decide what to do in the middle of the night. If you've both agreed what's best for your child, it'll be easier to stick to your plan.

Children's nightmares

Nightmares are quite common in young children. They often begin between the ages of 18 months and three years.

Nightmares aren't usually a sign of emotional disturbance. They may happen if your child is anxious about something or has been frightened by a TV programme or story.

After a nightmare, your child will need comfort and reassurance. If your child has a lot of nightmares and you don't know why, talk to your GP or health visitor.

How to handle night terrors

Night terrors are most common in children aged between three and eight years old. Usually, a child will scream or start thrashing around while they're still asleep.

It usually happens after the child has been asleep for a couple of hours. They may sit up and talk or look terrified while they're still asleep.

Don't wake your child during a night terror. But if they're happening at the same time each night, try breaking the pattern by gently waking your child about 15 minutes beforehand. Keep them awake for a few minutes, then let them go back to sleep. They won't remember anything in the morning.

Seeing your child have a night terror can be very upsetting, but they're not dangerous and won't have any lasting effects. Night terrors aren't usually a sign of any serious problems and your child will eventually grow out of them.

Help with kids' sleeping problems

It can take patience, consistency and commitment, but most children's sleep problems can be solved. If you've tried the suggestions on these pages and your child's sleeping is still a problem, you could talk to your health visitor.

They may have other ideas or suggest you make an appointment at a sleep clinic, if there's one in your area. Sleep clinics are usually run by health visitors or clinical psychologists who are trained in managing sleep problems. They can give you the help and support you need.

In the meantime, if you're desperate, try to find someone else to take over for an occasional night, or someone who your child could stay with, such as their grandparents. You'll cope better if you can catch up on some sleep yourself.

Helping your disabled child to sleep

Sometimes children with long-term illnesses or disabilities find it more difficult to sleep through the night. This can be challenging both for them and for you.

Contact a Family has more information about helping your child sleep.

The Scope website also has sleep advice for parents of disabled children.

Page last reviewed: 13/01/2016

Next review due: 13/01/2018


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