children's sleep guide (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/myristicafragrans/)

Like adults, children need sleep to feel their best. But also like adults, it’s not always easy for kids to get the sleep they need. Family schedules, poor sleep habits, even sleep disorders can interfere with healthy sleep. For healthy development and happiness, parents should support healthy sleep habits in children of every age.

There’s no denying that healthy sleep for children can be tough at any stage. Perhaps the hardest thing about children’s sleep is that it’s almost always changing. What works for newborns may not work for a six month old, and preschoolers sleep much differently than teenagers. All of these changes can leave parents confused and frustrated, especially when children experience sleep difficulties.

But even though healthy child sleep is sometimes difficult, it’s important that parents and caregivers work with children to develop good sleep habits. Without enough sleep, children suffer. They experience moodiness, decreased cognitive ability, difficulty at school, even behavioral and health problems. There is no substitute for healthy sleep habits and adequate sleep.

In this guide, we explain everything parents and caregivers need to know about sleep for children at every stage. You’ll learn about appropriate sleep times for children by age, find tips for supporting healthy sleep, and learn how to develop a good bedtime routine. There are also resources for learning about sleep disorders and discovering the best books, music, and videos for helping children sleep soundly.

Ultimate Children’s Sleep Chart

Use this children’s sleep chart to see sleep details for every age from newborn to school age. Find your child’s age to see how many hours of sleep they need overall, during the day, and at night, along with helpful tips for each age.

Newborn-2 months
2-4 months4-6 months6-9 months9-12 months12-18 months
18 months - 2 years
2-3 years3-5 years5-12 years
Total sleep16-18 hours14-16 hours14-15 hours14 hours14 hours13-14 hours13-14 hours12-14 hours11-13 hours10-11 hours
Nighttime sleep
8-9 hours9-10 hours10 hours10-11 hours10-12 hours11-12 hours11 hours10-11 hours10-13 hours10-11 hours
Naptime Sleep7-9 hours4-5 hours4-5 hours3-4 hours2-3 hours2-3 hours2 hours1-2 hours0-1 hours0
Sleep Help/Tips
-Most newborns sleep for two to four hours at a time.

-Swaddling and white noise may help soothe your baby to sleep.

-Always put your baby to sleep on his or her back to help prevent SIDS.

-Talk in low, soothing tones to avoid stimulating your baby in the middle of the night.

-Never fall asleep with your baby on a couch or chair, as there is a risk of falling as well as suffocation and SIDS.

-Don't change nighttime diapers except for poop. Changing your baby every time he or she wakes up isn't necessary and may keep them awake longer.
-Set up a soothing nighttime routine with a bath, book, or lullabies to teach your baby how to relax before bed.

-As soon as your baby seems sleepy, put him or her down for a nap.

-Don't respond to cries immediately. Give your baby a few minutes to try and get settled without you.

-Avoid placing blankets or toys in your baby's crib, as they can be a suffocation hazard and a SIDS risk.
-Babies are capable of sleeping 8-12 hours at a time each night at this age, though some may not be ready to do it just yet.

-Consider dream feeding before you go to bed to help your baby sleep for a longer stretch. Keep the lights down and gently feed your baby without waking him or her up fully.

-Transition your baby out of swaddling blankets at this age, especially if they begin to break out of it often. Start the transition by wrapping your baby without their arms in the swaddle, then remove it altogether.
-Lay your baby down to sleep while drowsy, but still awake.

-Lower your baby's crib to the lowest position if your baby can stand. At this age, they may be able to climb out.

-Avoid overstimulation. Though babies at this age enjoy playing, encourage relaxation time before bed.
-Don't add cereal to your baby's bottle. Although your baby may be eating solid foods now, cereal in your baby's bottle won't help them sleep through the night and may cause indigestion.

-Be prepared for separation anxiety, giving your baby attention and reassurance that you'll always come back when sleep time is over.

-A well lit room is good for naps, but your baby's nursery should be dark at night. Never carry your baby into a brightly lit room at night, as this tells your baby's brain it's morning and time to wake up.
-Maintain regular bed and nap times for consistency. Keeping your child in a predictable sleep routine makes it easier to get them asleep.

-Don't allow toddlers to nap late in the day, as this may interfere with bedtime.

-Keep a consistent bedtime routine with calming activities for 30 minutes before bed. Consider taking a bath, reading a book, or singing lullabies.
-Don't skip naptime. Even as your toddler becomes more active, naps are an important part of their sleep needs.

-Toddlers may resist sleeping especially in this stage when they don't want to miss out on fun. Be gentle but firm in enforcing naps and bedtimes. Avoid threats or yelling, as this will make them feel insecure and make them too excited before bedtime.

-Ask your toddler to help you pick out pajamas and a stuffed animal to take to bed. This will help them feel more secure, in control, and comforted.

-Inspect the area around your toddler's crib for anything they can reach from a standing position, such as curtains, window blinds, or art on the walls.
-Your toddler may be ready to transition from a crib to a bed at this age, especially if they are active or frequently attempt to crawl out of their crib.

-Limit food and drink right before bed, especially if you're potty training.

-Do not allow screen time in the bedroom or for at least an hour before bed to avoid overstimulation.

-Avoid large stuffed animals, toys, or bumper pads in the crib, as they can be used to climb out.
-Preschoolers usually stop napping by age five. During this age, give your child an hour of quiet time during the day and allow them to play quietly in their bed or room if they are not sleeping.

-Be ready for nightmares and nighttime fears. Allow your child to come to you if they are scared in the night, but insist that they return to their own bed once they've been comforted.

-Be patient and prepared with nighttime potty training. Avoid drinks right before bed, make potty time part of your bedtime routine, and place a protective mattress cover under your child's sheets.
-Respect your child's sleep needs. Avoid letting family or extracurricular activities interfere with giving your child enough time to sleep at night.

-Watch for signs of sleep deprivation which can include irritability, frustration, hyperactivity, and decreased cognitive ability.

-Set clear limits on bedtime, including when lights are turned off, how many bedtime stories you'll read, and when screen time stops.

-Continue to maintain a consistent bedtime routine at the same time every night with calming activities.

 

Creating a Healthy Sleep Routine

A healthy sleep routine is essential at any age. A bedtime routine eases the transition from being awake to being asleep. With calming, comforting activities, your child will feel more secure and ready for bed. Sleep associations are strong, and with consistent use, your child will come to expect the routine, making bedtime transitions easier for everyone.

A child’s sleep routine can be simple as long as it is consistent and predictable. Your child’s bedtime routine will change as they age, but the basics should stay the same. Quick and easy or long and relaxing, it’s your choice what you do to make your child ready for bed.

Developing a sleep routine for your child is easy: simply choose a few calming activities that will help your child wind down before bed. It can be as simple as putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, and reading a story, or you can involve bathtime, snuggling, songs, or even massage. Follow these tips to build the perfect bedtime routine for you and your child, adjusting activities for age as necessary:

  • Set a consistent bedtime: Your child’s body will learn to get ready to sleep at a certain time if you stick to a consistent bedtime, making the transition to bed easier.
  • Tell your child bedtime is approaching: Give your child a warning that you’ll be starting bedtime in a few minutes. If they’re playing, suggest they get “one more time” and then it’s off to start your routine.
  • Stop screen time: Screen time should end at least 30 minutes before bed. Do not allow screen time in your child’s bedroom and especially not in bed.
  • Limit food and drink: Avoid giving your child food or drink just before bed, and don’t send your child to bed with a drink, especially milk, formula, or juice, which can cause cavities as they sit on teeth all night. If they insist on a drink, give them water.
  • Brush teeth and use the potty: While you’re running bath water, encourage your child to use the potty and brush his or her teeth, offering assistance if necessary.
  • Start a warm bath: A warm bath will raise your child’s body temperature slightly and induce sleepiness. Plus, they can keep playing for a few more minutes with bath toys.
  • Put on pajamas: Help your child dress for bed in comfortable pajamas. If they are old enough, encourage them to choose which pajamas they’d like to wear.
  • Choose a comfort item: If your child sleeps with a special blanket or toy, ask them to choose which item they’d like to take to bed.
  • Keep bedtime in your child’s bedroom: Once your bedtime routine has begun, keep it all in your child’s sleep environment. Avoid adult bedrooms or trips to the kitchen or living room for snacks or toys once you’ve gone into their room.
  • Read a story, sing a song, say a prayer: Enjoy a few minutes of bonding over a favorite bedtime book, especially ones with a bedtime theme. Lullabies and prayers or meditation are also a good option during this time.
  • Put your child to bed: Take a few minutes to snuggle or talk about your day if you’d like. Encourage children to fall asleep on their own by saying goodnight and leaving while they are still awake.
  • Stay consistent: Whatever elements you choose to make part of your bedtime routine, stick with them. Keeping the same routine every night makes it easier for your child to settle into bed, giving his or her body cues that it’s about time to go to sleep. Avoid wavering on bedtime rules to cut down on stalling.

Additional resources:

Sleep Setup: Mattresses and More

What do children need for healthy sleep? As your child grows, their needs will change, but the basics stay the same. A comfortable, clean mattress, safe sleeping area, and relaxing bedroom environment are key to healthy sleep at any age.

Mattresses for Children

Finding the right mattress for your child is the foundation of healthy sleep. A good mattress will give your child a safe, comfortable place to rest every night.

Crib Mattresses

Babies spend more hours asleep than awake in their first few months, so making the right choice for your newborn’s crib mattress is important. Consider safety, cost, durability, and comfort when choosing a mattress for your baby’s crib.

Crib Mattress Materials and Types
  • Innerspring crib mattresses: Innerspring mattresses are most common for cribs. These mattresses have coils inside that are covered with foam, padding, and fabric.
  • Foam crib mattresses: Light and usually inexpensive, foam mattresses are less common in cribs and more often seen in bassinets. Choose a foam mattress that is firm and resilient, as an overly soft sleeping surface is a suffocation and SIDS risk.
  • Organic crib mattresses: Organic mattresses can be innerspring, foam, or another type of mattress made out of organic materials. Parents concerned with gases and materials often choose organic crib mattresses, though they can be expensive.
  • Inappropriate crib mattresses: Air mattresses, water beds, and other soft surfaces are not safe for babies and should not be used in cribs.
Choosing the Right Crib Mattress
  • Firmness: For safety, your baby’s crib mattress should be firm and not conform to the shape of your hand when you test it. Mattresses that are too soft can be dangerous as babies and toddlers are unable to adjust their position on a surface that holds their shape, leading to potential suffocation and SIDS.
  • Accurate sizing: Any mattress you choose should be snug in your baby’s crib. For safety, avoid mattresses that leave space between the side of the mattress and the crib frame, as this is a suffocation hazard.
  • Venting: Small air flow holes will let the mattress vent. This allows odors to escape and can extend the life of your crib mattress.
  • Water resistant covering: Many parents choose mattresses with water resistant mattress covering. Organic mattresses may not have this cover, but fitted waterproof covers can be added to bedding.
  • Certification seals: Make sure you’re purchasing a crib mattress that meets U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and American Society for Testing and Materials safety standards.
  • Quality and cleanliness: Be careful if you’re choosing a used mattress. Look for signs of wear, damage, or bacteria growth. For the latest in safety standards as well as hygiene, it’s best to choose a new mattress.
Crib Mattress Lifespan

Like regular mattresses, it is recommended that you replace crib mattresses every eight years. Crib mattresses should be replaced sooner if they show signs of wear, have been abused (such as extended jumping sessions with toddlers), or have been recalled. Specifically, look for signs of mold or punctures or tears in the waterproof housing of the mattress before deciding to reuse your crib mattress for another baby.

Cleaning a Crib Mattress

Most manufacturers recommend spot cleaning mattresses with a damp cloth and mild soap. Avoid using harsh chemicals or bleach, as they can harm mattress coating and linger where your child sleeps at night.

Choosing a Mattress for Your Child

The Right Size Mattress for Your Child

Most families choose twin or twin XL for young children. However, older children may prefer a full or queen sized bed. If you plan to keep your child’s mattress until they become a teenager, a larger bed may be a better choice.

Types of Mattresses for Children
  • Innerspring mattresses: Still the most popular mattress for children, innerspring mattresses offer support with coils. Some now offer individually wrapped pocketed coils for better contouring. Best for: Back and stomach sleepers, side sleepers (pocketed coil) Bedframes: traditional box spring Cost: $100-$2,000
  • Memory foam mattresses: Memory foam mattresses are made of foam that molds to your child’s body and then goes back to its normal shape. This type of mattress offers excellent support as it conforms to your child’s body. Best for: Back and side sleepers Bedframes: platform, adjustable Cost: $100-$4,000

Pillows for Children

Types of Pillows for Children
  • Toddler pillows: Designed just for toddlers, these pillows are made with toddler proportions in mind to support their head, neck, and shoulders. They are typically made of wool, cotton, down, or feather.
  • Child body pillows: Child body pillows provide support and give children a comforting object to hug at night. Placed between the legs, they can help with side sleeper alignment.
  • Foam pillows: Foam pillows offer support without getting too soft.
  • Memory foam pillows: Memory foam pillows adjust to your body’s shape throughout the night and may better support the neck.
  • Latex pillows: Latex pillows are firm and resistant to mold and dust mites. They are often contoured for neck support.
  • Wool and cotton pillows: Like latex pillows, pillows filled with wool or cotton are firm. They are also hypoallergenic and resistant to mold and dust mites.
  • Down and feather pillows: Recommended by many sleep experts, down and feather pillows are easy to adjust, soft, and firm. However, some children may be allergic.
  • Thin pillows: Thin pillows are ideal for back sleepers to avoid pushing the head forward too far. Stomach sleepers should also use thin pillows to avoid neck strain.
  • Firm pillows: Side sleepers should use firm pillows to provide support for the head, neck, and shoulder.

Choosing Children’s Bedding

  • Keep babies’ beds sparse: Bumpers, comforters, pillows, stuffed animals, and other soft objects are a suffocation risk and SIDS hazard for young babies. Newborn cribs should only have a fitted sheet for safety.
  • Ask your child about decor preferences: Child bedding is available in a variety of styles ranging from classic and modern to themed.
  • Consider sheet quality: While some child bedding sets will be low quality, particularly themed sets, you should look for cotton with a high thread count for comfort and durability.
  • Choose the right comforter or duvet filling: Comforters, blankets, and duvets come in a variety of materials including down and features, cotton and wool, synthetic, and renewable materials. Down and feather blankets will be warmest, while synthetic, cotton, and renewable materials may offer a lighter cover. Cotton will be the most breathable, absorbing moisture if your child sweats at night.
  • Consider fire retardants and organic bedding: Many parents choose sheets with natural fire retardants rather than dyes, chemicals and coatings. Organic bedding uses natural fibers without harmful chemicals or pesticides.
  • Use a waterproof mattress protector for accidents: Babies and children who are potty training should have a waterproof mattress protector to keep the mattress clean.
  • Use synthetic bedding for allergies: Children with allergies may not be comfortable with down, feather, wool, or even cotton bedding. Synthetic non allergenic bedding is a good choice for these children.

Bedroom Lighting for Children

  • Child bedrooms should be kept dark: A dark room helps signal to your child’s brain that it’s nighttime and that they should be sleeping. Any light Of course, during naptime, light is acceptable.
  • Use heavy curtains if needed: If your child’s bedroom tends to be bright with natural light, use heavy curtains to block the light out during bedtime, particularly if your child goes to bed before it’s completely dark or wakes up after sunrise.
  • Be careful with nightlights: Some children may insist on a nightlight, and they can offer comfort for kids who are afraid of the dark. They also increase safety for children if they need to get out of bed in the night. However, exposure to light in the night can have a negative impact on sleep quality. Instead of a nightlight, consider giving your child a flashlight to keep on their bedside table in case they are scared or need to get out of bed in the night. Or, use a nightlight with a timer that turns off after your child has fallen asleep.

Additional Child Bedroom Resources

Common Sleep Problems for Children

Just like adults, many children face difficulties sleeping at night. Common sleep problems for children are nightmares, sleep terrors, and sleep talking. Find out how you can help your child work through these issues.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

The National Institutes of Health estimates that one million school-age children have RLS. However, the condition is often mistaken for ADHD or growing pains. Children with RLS feel compelled to move their legs at night, feel discomfort including itching, creepy crawling, or pins and needles, and struggle to fall asleep due to the movement and discomfort.

RLS can be caused by an iron deficiency, inheritance, even some medications including antihistamines, anti-nausea medications, and antidepressants. Treatments inclde iron supplementation in the case of iron deficiency, massage therapy, hot or cold therapy, and good sleep habits. Severe cases may call for prescription medication.

Children’s Nightmares

Most children experience nightmares at some point in their childhood. They are most common in preschoolers, as children at this age develop more fears and imagination. With nightmares, children experience troubling dreams. They may cause children to wake up, disrupt sleep, and cause anxiety or distress while they are awake.

When helping children with nightmares, it’s important to remember that these bad dreams may feel very real to them. Reassure your child that you’re there to help them and explain that it was just a dream. Offer comfort, allow your child to tell you about their nightmare if they’d like to, and if needed, perform a check in the closet and under the bed to give them the all clear.

Often, nightmares will happen no matter what you do, but there are things you can do to encourage restful sleep and good dreams. Maintain regular sleep and wake times, use a calming sleep routine, avoid scary shows or movies before bed, and create a comforting sleep environment. Be aware that changes at home such as moving, starting a new school, a new sibling, divorce, or a death in the family can increase anxiety and lead to more nightmares.

Insomnia

Children can experience insomnia, which occurs when children have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night. Children with insomnia may wake up to early as well. Insomnia makes it difficult to rest and may impair daytime functioning and health.

Insomnia in children can be short or long term, with short term insomnia often occurring due to sickness or a particular medication. Children who suffer from insomnia three times a week for a month or longer may have long term insomnia.

Childhood insomnia can often be treated with good sleep habits and a comfortable sleep environment. Parents can also teach children how to relax with deep breathing, positive imagery, and other relaxation techniques. Behavioral therapy may be needed, however, medications are usually not recommended for children with insomnia.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a dangerous sleeping disorder that most often affects adults, but can occur in children as well. Children suffering from sleep apnea stop breathing during their sleep, usually due to an obstruction in the upper airway. It can cause disruptive sleep, learning, behavior, and growth problems, and even cause heart problems. Sometimes, childhood sleep apnea is life threatening.

Parents should monitor children for signs of sleep apnea, including snoring, heavy breathing, restless sleep, sudden bedwetting, and daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea treatment for children can include an adenotonsillectomy to remove tonsil and adenoids, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, and weight loss.

Night Terrors

Often confused for nightmares, night terrors are sleep disruptions that can be very alarming. They typically occur between two to three hours after a child falls asleep and as they transition from non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. It is the transition from one sleep phase to another that gives children a fearful reaction.

Night terrors are rare and only happen in three to six percent of kids, usually between the ages of four to 12. During a night terror, children may suddenly sit upright, scream, and experience fast breathing or heartbeat. They may also sweat, thrash, and feel scared. Usually, children don’t remember night terrors because they are still in deep sleep.

There is no treatment for night terrors, but more frequent night terrors have been observed in children who are overtired, stressed, fatigued, or sick, as well as those sleeping in a new environment or taking a new medication. You can reduce your child’s stress, stick to a calming bedtime routine, and give your child enough rest. Never try to wake a child during a night terror. Simply wait patiently and monitor your child to make sure they don’t get hurt until they fall back asleep in a few minutes.

Snoring

Snoring is not always unusual in children. There are some children who snore every night without any indication of a problem, and 20% of normal children snore occasionally with adequate sleep. Children may snore while suffering from a respiratory infection, stuffy nose, or allergy, and the snoring will pass along with the illness.

However, snoring can indicate sleep apnea, a serious problem. If your child snores regularly, it’s best to work with your doctor for a diagnosis.

Sleep Walking and Talking

As many as 40 percent of children may experience sleep walking. This condition is most common between the ages of three and seven. Sleep walking usually happens an hour or two after children fall asleep and can last between five to 20 minutes. Sleep walking can be harmless, but is potentially dangerous if your child wanders outside. Children usually do not remember sleep walking the next day.

Sleep walking can include sleep talking, though children may not respond when spoken to, even if their eyes are open. Bedwetting and night terrors may also occur.

There is usually no need to treat a sleep walker or sleep talker unless the condition causes your child to be sleepy during the day or involve dangerous behaviors. Do not try to wake a sleep walker. Rather, gently guide them back to bed. Lock windows and doors throughout the home, remove dangerous objects and obstacles, and install safety gates at the top of stairs. Do not allow sleep walkers to sleep in the top of a bunk bed.

Help Children Understand the Importance of Sleep

Children, especially younger children, may not understand how important sleep is. Often, they’d much rather play or engage with parents, siblings, and friends than rest. But sleep is important to health, growth, cognitive ability, mood, and more. Parents should help children understand the importance of sleep at every stage, explaining why we sleep, what happens while we sleep and dream, and supporting children as they learn how to get adequate sleep.

Resources for helping children understand the importance of sleep:

Additional Sleep Resources for Parents

Want more information on child sleep? These resources will help your child (and you) get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep Training Resources

Sleep Aids for Children

Sleep Disorders

Sleep Studies for Children

Sleep Habits for Children

The Best Lullabies, Books, and Videos for Child Sleep

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