Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

Helping your children (and yourself) get a good night’s sleep is a common parental problem. Here’s some well-honed ideas which will result in everyone doing better in this department.

Colin Bowles once said “if you’ve got kids, the next time you can expect to get a full night’s sleep is about the time your superannuation is due”! And, as it happens, the problem of getting enough sleep is as much ours as it is our children’s. The payoff of getting the right rest for children is that they will be happier and easier to manage. For parents, the payoff is that they’ll have greater patience and more energy to enjoy their child.

The first thing to say about kids and sleep is that they need more sleep than they want.  As a guide here is the amount of sleep children generally require:-

  • 6-23 month olds: 12-14 hours
  • 2 -3 year olds:  12-13 hours
  • 3-5 year olds: 10-12 hours
  •  Kids in year 3 and up generally need about 9 to 10 hours sleep a night &
  • Generally, adolescents need more sleep than adults.

Children will tend to resist sleep unless they are in the routine of sleep.

  • If you need to increase your child’s sleep duration, slide his or her pre-bedtime routine (showering, toilet, teeth-brushing, stories) back by 15 minutes one week at a time.  Even a ½ an hour less sleep a night than normal can increase children’s irritability, their restlessness and their inability to learn.
  • After you child is 4 years old, try to discourage daytime naps unless they are really, really tired; it will “rob” from the depth of their next nighttime’s sleep.
  • It’s important to set your child’s body clock by their normal morning wake time (e,g., 7.00am). Try to work out what time they approximately need to head off to bed by determining that number of hours from the time they normally get up in the morning.

According to the Leslie Sleep Centre for children, parents need to adhere to bedtime “rules of thumb” if they want their children to sleep through the night.

If you follow these hints consistently, they will work. Though, you should expect things to get worse before they get better. Children like what they know now and if you change it they will probably rebel a bit. The trick is to not give up. Make an agreement with yourself that that you will persist, come hell or high water, for at least two to three months.

Now to the action….

  • Set up a bedtime ritual, and tell your child what they need to attend to before bed (bath, toilet, teeth brushing, story, hug) so that there is no reason to keep responding to your child’s demands once they are in bed.
  • Expect that it is normal for children to go off to sleep once you have read to them and/or or tucked them in.

If your child is not in the habit of getting off to sleep by themselves, you can wean them off the habit of having to have you there by doing the following: sit in a chair next to the bed close enough so that you can hold their hand – not on the bed (1 to 2 weeks), move the chair to the end of the bed so you can reach their toe and hold toe for comfort (1 week), move the chair to the door and sit no closer (1 week), sit outside the bedroom door (1 week) and then put them to bed and then let them go off to sleep by themselves.

  • In responding to middle of the night awakenings the golden rule is reduce the attention you give to the child. There are basically two methods: the “controlled crying” method and the “cold turkey” method which involves no attention at all (that means no attention as long as they stay in bed).

Using the controlled crying method, the deal is this: If your child cries or shouts (but stays in bed) wait 3 to 5 minutes (less for younger children – more for older children), then go in and comfort the child for a few minutes only but don’t take the child out of the bed or cot. Then, leave the room. Next time wait 6 to 8 minutes and do the same thing, next time wait 10 to15 minutes and do the same thing. Next time wait 15 to 20 minutes and do the same thing.

Unlike the “controlled crying” devotees, the “cold turkey” devotees say that the longer you make a child wait for attention, the longer he learns to wail. Hmmn…

So, they say, no attention at all is the answer. Don’t respond to crying or calling out and, if your child gets out of bed, return him/her immediately with minimum contact and attention (no eye contact and like a robot).

Your child will realize that by getting out of bed, he/she does not benefit either by being allowed to stay up or receiving your attention.

  • In the morning, describe to your child how they stayed in bed and went back to sleep by themselves. (Sometimes coloured dots put on the calendar for younger kids – and linked to an ice cream at the end of the week can often work a treat.)

Some final points: Don’t do this when your child is sick. The programme can be reintroduced when your child is better. And, obviously, attend to your child if her cries signal pain. Keep the lights very dim at bedtime; this helps children to relax. Finally, tell your neighbours it might be louder at your house for a night or three!

If you’ve really been consistent with things and it’s still not working, see your local GP or Department of Health Early Childhood Nurse.

Happy sleeping – and remember to keep paying into your super; once you get the kids’ to sleep right you’ll be withdrawing from that account before you know it.

– Michael Hawton, Child & Family Psychologist

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter to receive informative articles providing practical advice on behaviour management for families, educators and community service providers, as well as all our upcoming courses and relevant resources. The amount of emails you are likely to receive is between once a week to once a month.

Associations and Affiliations