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Common sleep problems in 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.

If you're happy for your child to go to bed at the same time as you, that's fine. 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 to 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.
  • If your child cries, leave them for 5 to 10 minutes before going back in and settling them down again.
  • Don't pick them up or take them downstairs. If your child gets up, put them back to bed again.
  • Leave a drink of water within reach and a dim light on if necessary.
  • If you keep checking to see if your child is asleep, you might wake them up, so leave it until you're certain that they're asleep.
  • You might have to repeat this routine for several nights.
  • If you try this, you will need to try to be firm and not give in.

If your child keeps waking during the night

By the time your child is six months old, it's reasonable to expect them to sleep through most nights. However, up to half of all children under five go through periods of night waking. 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, some 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 of night fears or bad dreams? 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 to 60 minutes before this time, then settling 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.
  • Teach your child to get back to sleep by themselves. First check that everything is all right. If it is, settle your child down without talking to them too much. If they want a drink, give them water but don't give them anything to eat. For this approach to work, you need to leave them in their cot or bed. Don't take them downstairs or into your bed. Let them cry for around 5 to 10 minutes before you check on them. Over the next few nights, gradually increase the amount of time you leave them before checking. It might take a week or two, but if you keep the routine going, your child should start falling asleep on their own.
  • 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.
  • Watch this video on how to get your baby into a routine.

Is controlled crying safe?

In September 2012, several national newspapers advised controlled crying was the "best" way to get your baby to sleep. While researchers found that controlled crying was safe, the headlines did not accurately reflect the scientists' conclusions.

To get the full story, read the Behind the Headlines analysis of whether controlled crying is safe.

Children's nightmares

Nightmares are quite common. 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.

Night terrors

Night terrors can happen before the age of one, but they're most common in children between three and eight years old. Usually, the 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. Night terrors aren't usually a sign of any serious problems and your child will eventually grow out of them.

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.

Extra help with kids' sleeping problems

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

They may have other ideas or may suggest you make an appointment at a sleep clinic, if there is 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. You'll cope better if you can catch up on some sleep yourself.

Coping with a disabled child's sleep

Some children with illnesses or disabilities may find it more difficult to learn to do things such as sleeping through the night or using a toilet. This might be linked to their medical condition or disability, and it can be challenging both for them and for you. Read more about children's learning disabilities and challenging behaviour.

Contact a Family can provide information, suggest further sources of support and put you in touch with other parents who have faced similar problems.

Further information on toddler sleep problems

Page last reviewed: 13/01/2014

Next review due: 13/01/2016


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