Children and sleep: Encourage healthy habits

Sleep is a critical component of a healthy life. Start children off right with these guidelines, suggestions and tips.

Sound sleep is essential for adults and children. Photo by gosia79 at
Sound sleep is essential for adults and children. Photo by gosia79 at

While the exact amount one needs varies, sound sleep is essential for adults and children. According to the National Sleep Foundation, preschool-aged children generally need between 11 and 12 hours of sound sleep. Many three-year-old children will take a brief nap during the day and sleep 10-11 hours at night, while many 4-5 year olds will give up their daytime nap and sleep a little while longer through the night.

The amount of sleep a child receives will affect his or her brain. There are two kinds of sleep a child will experience, each resulting in different brain activity. During Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, a child’s eyes will be closed but her eyelids will move constantly and rapidly. During this time, the brain is still active but the body is very quiet and still. This is the time when the brain will dream. This is also the time when the brain reorganizes while sleeping. Non-REM sleep progresses from light sleep to deep sleep. This is a process that typically takes about one hour. This stage is followed by a period of REM sleep. This alternation of sleep patterns happens five to six times throughout the night. It is very important for a child to get enough sleep to go through the restorative and revision cycles of both kinds of sleep.

Keeping your child in bed can be a challenge at times and can take some children 30 or more minutes to fall asleep. A lot of times, children will yell for Mom or Dad and say they are hungry, thirsty, not tired, have to go potty, etc. This often happens because they are having a hard time separating from their parents/caregivers and need some reassurance. Although each situation and each child is different, below are some suggestions that might help with bedtime.

  • Set limits; for example, how many glasses of water will be enough before you say no?
  • Be in control of the situation by telling your child you will be back in a few minutes to check on him/her and be sure you follow through with it. Do this repeatedly, and each time leave for longer periods of time until your child eventually falls asleep while you are out of the room. The key to success is the child knowing that you will actually be back to check on him/her.
  • Make a rule that the door stays open or the light stays on as long as the child stays in bed.
  • Put a picture of the family next to the child’s bed and encourage him/her to take a cuddly toy to bed.
  • Remind your child of your expectations (staying in bed) just before you say “I love you,” and leave the room. Offer an incentive, such as, “If you stay in your bed all night we’ll read a book in the morning.” Again, the key to success is making sure you follow through.

Another suggestion is to read book about bedtime. Below you will find a brief list of books on this topic:

  • “All the Pretty Horses” by Susan Jeffers                                 
  • “Bedtime for Frances” by Russell Hoban
  • “The Napping Horse” by Audrey Wood
  • “Peace at Last” by Jill Murphy
  • “Sleepy Book” by Charlotte Zolotow
  • “Ten, Nine, Eight” by Molly Bang
  • “There’s an Alligator Under My Bed” by Mercer Mayer
  • “The Way Animals Sleep” by Jane Stevenson
  • “When Sheep Cannot Sleep” by Satoshi Kitamura

For more articles on child development and parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Did you find this article useful?