Giving Your Child the Gift of Rest: How to Encourage Healthy Sleep Habits

Narissa R. Griffin, PhD
Assistant Professor and Behavioral Psychologist
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Department of Pediatrics
Schmieding Developmental Center

Encouraging healthy sleep habits in your child is a gift that lasts a lifetime. Adequate rest can promote better behavior, attention, learning and overall health. Here are some tips to get them on the right track early.

Determining Hours of Sleep Needed

It is important to know how much sleep a child really needs based on his age, and many parents may be surprised to discover that their child is not getting enough rest. The National Sleep Foundation recently updated guidelines for recommended hours of sleep for each age range as follows:

Age Range

Total Sleep per 24 hours

Typical Ranges for Naps

Newborn (0-3 months)

14-17 hours

Several daily; may nap every 1-3 hours

Infant (4-11 months)

12-15 hours

1-4 naps per day, from 30 minutes to 2 hours

Toddler (1-2 years)

11-14 hours

1-2 naps per day, from 1-3 hours

Preschooler (3-5 years)

10-13 hours

1 nap per day, from 1-3 hours; rare after age 5

School Age (6-13 years)

9-11 hours

no nap

Teenager (14-17)

8-10 hours

no nap

Additional Resources

Developing a Bedtime Routine

When encouraging healthy sleep habits for your child, the first thing you need is a good bedtime routine. A good routine is one that begins at the same time and place every night, and one that is enjoyable and calming for your child. Routine length may vary depending on what you include, but 20-30 minutes is probably a good range for most.

The routine should begin with setting a calming mood by dimming noise and lights and turning off electronic devices. Some possible activities to include in your routine include bath and hygiene tasks, using the bathroom, story time, prayers, bedtime songs and changing into pajamas.

If there is some aspect of the routine that is important but that your child does not enjoy (say, brushing teeth), try to do this first to avoid battles closer to bedtime. Do your best to keep the order and timing of the routine consistent every night, as this will help your child's body calm and prepare for sleep…which makes bedtime easier on you too!

End the routine with a key phrase that you use every night to signal that it is finally time to settle to sleep, such as "Sweet dreams" or "Sleep tight." Then, you will need to leave the room so that your child can fall asleep alone, as this will help prevent troublesome night time awakenings later on.

Quitting Bad Habits

Next, you will need to begin working toward breaking any habits that are disruptive to your child's sleep. Perhaps your child has developed an unhealthy sleep dependency. Many of us are dependent on something in our environment to help us fall asleep, such as darkness, heavy blankets or a fan. If any of those things change in the night, we will most likely wake up and try to fix the problem so that we can go back to sleep.

The problem arises when your child develops a sleep dependency on something that does not remain present all night. For example, having a parent in the room when she falls asleep, having an overhead light on that gets turned off or listening to sounds in the home environment that quiet after she goes to sleep. Such changes are likely to cause your child to wake in the night and come to find you because she cannot fall back asleep on her own.

Healthy sleep dependencies are those that can typically remain the same all night, such as darkness, cuddling a pillow or large stuffed animal, listening to a sound machine or fan, or sleeping under a favorite blanket. Healthy sleep objects will help your child become less likely to wake fully in the night, being better able to fall back asleep without your assistance.

You will also want to take care to teach your child to fall asleep quickly. In order to accomplish this, you will first need to make sure he is using his bed for sleep only. Your child should avoid watching TV, playing or even reading in bed. You can have a chair or bean bag in his room for those activities.

If your child is still lying awake in bed for longer than 15-20 minutes, consider putting him to bed later, closer to the time he usually falls asleep. This might sound strange, but it is important that his body is trained to fall asleep quickly once he lies down. For example, if your goal bedtime is 7:30 p.m., but your child does not usually fall asleep until 8:15 p.m., you can temporarily move his bedtime to 8-8:15 p.m. Once he begins falling asleep within 15 minutes for 2-3 nights in a row, you can move bedtime back by 10-15 minutes at a time until he is going to bed at 7:30 p.m. and falling asleep by 7:45 p.m.

Handling Resistance

Of course, you are probably thinking about your child's reaction to the new bedtime routine. It will most likely take some work, as all behavior changes do, but remember that you are giving your child the gift of rest!

If you have many changes to make in your bedtime routine, you may want to ease the transition by changing only one thing at a time. You can help ease anxiety or fears at bedtime by having a comfort object waiting for her in bed, such as a stuffed animal or blanket or by adding some deep relaxation breathing to the bedtime routine.

If your child has trouble staying in bed, be prepared to calmly, quietly, and repeatedly escort her back to bed and remind her it is time for sleep. If she calls out for you, try to wait a few minutes longer each time before responding to give her a chance to fall asleep before you go to her.

Children who come up with multiple excuses to leave their bed can benefit from having a limited number of "passes" (say one or two) to use the bathroom or get a drink.

Finally, be sure to praise or perhaps even reward your child in the morning for staying in bed and getting a great night's sleep!