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Pregnancy and baby

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, there are some simple techniques you can try.

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

If your child won't go to sleep without you

More sleep tips for under-fives

Help your disabled child to sleep

Help with children's sleep problems

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 won't go to sleep without you

This technique can help toddlers (over 12 months) or older children get used to going to sleep without you in the room.

It can also be used whenever your child wakes in the middle of the night.

Be prepared for your child to take a long time to settle when you first start.

You can use strokes or pats instead of kisses if your child sleeps in a cot and you can’t reach them to give them a kiss.

  • Have a regular, calming bedtime routine.
  • Put your child to bed when they are drowsy but awake and kiss them goodnight.
  • Promise to go back in a few moments to give them another kiss.
  • Return almost immediately to give a kiss.
  • Take a few steps to the door, then return immediately to give a kiss.
  • Promise to return in a few moments to give them another kiss.
  • Put something away or do something in the room then give them a kiss.
  • As long as the child stays in bed, keep returning to give more kisses.
  • Do something outside their room and return to give kisses.
  • If the child gets out of bed, say, "back into bed and I'll give you a kiss".
  • Keep going back often to give kisses until they are asleep.
  • Repeat every time your child wakes during the night.

See more tips from Barts Health NHS Trust on helping young children to sleep (PDF, 219kb).

More sleep tips for under-fives

  • Make sure you have a calming, predictable bedtime routine that happens at the same time and includes the same things every night.
  • If your child complains that they're hungry at night, try giving them a bowl of cereal and milk before bed (make sure you brush their teeth afterwards).
  • If your child is afraid of the dark, consider using a nightlight or leaving a landing light on.
  • Don't let your child look at laptops, tablets or phones in the 30-60 minutes before bed – the light from screens can interfere with sleep.
  • When seeing to your child during the night, be as boring as possible – leave lights off, avoid eye contact and don't talk more than necessary.
  • Avoid long naps in the afternoon.

Help 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.

More help with children's sleep problems

It can take patience, consistency and commitment, but most children's sleep problems can be solved.

If your child is still having problems sleeping, you can talk to your health visitor.

They may have other ideas or suggest you make an appointment at a children's sleep clinic, if there's one in your area.

Page last reviewed: 31/03/2017

Next review due: 31/03/2020

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