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Children and Sleep: Establishing Healthy Habits for the Whole Family

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 Children and Sleep: Establishing Healthy Habits for the Whole Family

Sleep is essential for the growth and development of children, impacting their physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. Inadequate sleep has been linked to increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease, weakened immune function, mood disturbances, and behavioral problems. 

By prioritizing sleep as a family value, parents can model healthy behaviors and reinforce the importance of rest for our younger populations. Through education, support, and consistency, families can work together to establish sustainable sleep routines that promote optimal health and thriving development for children.


The Importance of Sleep for Children

Sleep is indispensable for children as it profoundly influences their physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Research underscores its critical role in supporting growth, optimal brain function, memory consolidation, and learning abilities. 

Insufficient sleep in children can lead to a range of detrimental effects, including:

Sleep requirements by age group are as follows:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours per day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-16 hours per day
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours per day
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours per day
  • School-age children (6-12 years): 9-12 hours per day
  • Teenagers (13-17 years): 8-10 hours per day

Common Sleep Challenges in Children

Children may encounter various sleep issues at different developmental stages.

Newborns often have irregular sleep patterns and frequent waking periods due to their need for frequent feedings. They may also experience day-night confusion, where they sleep longer during the day and are more awake at night. (29

Sleep regression is common during infancy. Developmental milestones such as teething, learning to crawl, or separation anxiety can potentially disrupt sleep patterns. Infants may also develop sleep associations, relying on specific conditions like rocking or nursing to fall asleep, leading to difficulties in self-soothing during nighttime awakenings. (9, 17

Toddlers and preschoolers may begin demonstrating behaviors of bedtime resistance as they learn to assert their independence. They may also start experiencing nightmares or night terrors. Transitioning from a crib to a toddler bed can also pose challenges, as toddlers may have difficulty adjusting and want to come into their parents' room at night regularly. 

Sleep problems in school-age children often include difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. Increased screen time, academic stress, and extracurricular activities may contribute to sleep disturbances. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome may also emerge during this period. (9, 31

Establishing a Bedtime Routine

A bedtime routine refers to a set of consistent activities or rituals performed each night before going to sleep, aimed at promoting relaxation, comfort, and preparation for restorative sleep. Bedtime routines help children go to sleep earlier, fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and wake up less during the night. (32

Effective bedtime routine activities include breast/bottle-feeding, bathtime, reading, singing lullabies, and cuddling. 

Follow these strategies to craft your child's bedtime routine (26, 32):  

  • Family Time: Make bedtime a time for family bonding. Encourage the household to wind down by dimming all lights in the house. If possible, both parents should engage with the child as they prepare for bedtime. 
  • Consistency: Establish a consistent bedtime and wake-up time for your child, even on weekends. Consistency helps regulate the body's internal clock, making it easier for children to fall asleep and wake up naturally.
  • Wind Down: Start the bedtime routine 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, before the child is overtired. Choose to practice calming activities over stimulating ones to promote relaxation. 
  • Limit Screen Time: Minimize exposure to screens (TV, tablets, smartphones) at least an hour before bedtime, as the blue light emitted can interfere with melatonin production, making it harder for children to fall asleep.
  • Be Patient and Flexible: It may take time for your child to adjust to a new bedtime routine. Be flexible and willing to modify the routine based on your child's preferences and developmental changes.

Creating an Optimal Sleep Environment

Environmental factors, such as noise and heat, can affect your sleep quality. By designing a bedroom optimized for temperature, noise, light, and comfort, parents can help create an optimal environment for their children conducive to sleep.


During the initial phases of sleep, the body undergoes several physiological changes, including decreased body temperature. This drop in body temperature is a natural part of the body's sleep-wake cycle and is regulated by the circadian rhythm. The drop in body temperature helps facilitate sleep onset by promoting drowsiness. (30

To promote sleep, maintain a comfortable room temperature, typically between 60-67°F (15-20°C). If the bedroom doesn't have a thermostat, use a fan or open windows to adjust the temperature. Use bedding layers that can be adjusted based on your child's temperature preferences to prevent overheating or feeling too cold at night. (34, 46


Noise can harm sleep quality by disrupting the ability to fall asleep and maintain deep sleep stages. Even low-level noise can trigger the body's stress response, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and arousal from sleep. Consistent exposure to noise during sleep can result in fragmented sleep patterns, leading to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired cognitive function. (14

Minimize noise disturbances in the bedroom by using white noise machines, fans, earplugs, and sound-blocking curtains if necessary. (34, 46


Light and dark cues regulate circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Exposure to light, particularly natural light during the day, signals the body to produce cortisol for alertness. In contrast, darkness signals the body to prepare for sleep by promoting melatonin production. 

Exposure to artificial light at night can disrupt circadian rhythms and lead to sleep disturbances.

Ensure the bedroom is dark or dimly lit during sleep. Use blackout curtains or blinds to block out external light sources. Remove all blue light-emitting screens from the bedroom. (34, 46)

Healthy Daytime Habits for Better Sleep

Establishing healthy daytime habits is essential for promoting better sleep in children. 

Physical Activity

Regular exercise is an effective way to improve sleep quality and duration. Exercise helps regulate circadian rhythms and reduces stress and anxiety, common contributors to sleep disturbances. 

Physical activity and outdoor play are favorably associated with positive sleep outcomes in children. According to the CDC, children ages 3-5 should be active throughout the day. Children and teens ages 6-17 should engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. 


Diet plays a significant role in sleep quality and duration by influencing various physiological processes and neurotransmitter pathways involved in sleep regulation. Certain foods and nutrients can either promote or hinder sleep, depending on their composition and timing of consumption. 

For example, foods rich in tryptophan, such as turkey, nuts, and dairy products, can increase serotonin levels in the brain, promoting relaxation and aiding in sleep onset. On the other hand, consuming large meals, caffeine, or spicy foods close to bedtime can disrupt sleep by causing discomfort, increasing alertness, and interfering with the body's ability to fall asleep and maintain restful sleep throughout the night. (50

Adopting a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods and mindful eating habits can support optimal sleep health and contribute to restorative sleep patterns. Avoid giving your child caffeine-containing beverages or foods close to bedtime, which can stimulate the nervous system and interfere with sleep. 

Addressing Fears and Anxieties at Bedtime

Anxiety can interfere with sleep by disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. Persistent worry, apprehension, or stress can activate the body's stress response, leading to increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Additionally, anxiety can manifest as racing thoughts, rumination, or hyperarousal, preventing the mind from entering a relaxed state conducive to sleep onset. Physical symptoms of stress, such as muscle tension, restlessness, and increased heart rate, can also contribute to sleep disturbances by causing discomfort and making it challenging to achieve restful sleep. (41

Addressing bedtime fears and anxieties in children involves several strategies:

  • Open Communication: Parents should foster open discussions and validate their child's feelings. Encouraging children to express their fears openly creates a supportive environment where they feel understood and reassured. 
  • Nightlights: Nightlights can help alleviate the fear of the dark, providing a sense of security and comfort. 
  • Security Objects: Introducing security objects, such as stuffed animals or blankets, can offer tangible reassurance and familiarity, helping children feel safe and protected during bedtime. 

The Role of Naps in Children's Sleep

Naps play a crucial role in children's sleep patterns, especially at younger ages. Regular naps help children meet their increased sleep requirements. They prevent overtiredness and are as important as nighttime sleep for neurocognitive development.

As children mature, they gradually outgrow the need for naps. Most children begin to transition away from regular napping between the ages of 3 to 5 years old. Signs that a child may be ready to stop napping include consistently resisting naptime, taking longer to fall asleep at night, and maintaining energy levels throughout the day without naps. (40

Involving the Whole Family in Sleep Hygiene

Modeling good sleep hygiene practices by parents and caregivers is crucial for instilling healthy sleep habits in children and promoting optimal sleep quality for the entire family. Research has shown a strong concordance between child and parent sleep habits, highlighting parents' influential role in shaping their children's sleep behaviors. 

When parents prioritize consistent bedtime routines, create a peaceful sleep environment, and practice healthy sleep habits, they set a positive example that children will likely emulate. Family-wide adherence to these practices reinforces children's understanding of the importance of sleep and fosters a supportive sleep environment where everyone can sleep soundly. By committing to healthy sleep habits as a family, parents can positively influence their children's sleep routines and improve sleep quality and overall well-being for all family members.

When to Seek Professional Help

Signs indicating a need for professional consultation regarding sleep issues include:

  • Persistent sleep problems despite healthy sleep hygiene habits
  • While occasional snoring is common in children, persistent loud or disruptive snoring, especially accompanied by gasping, choking, or pauses in breathing during sleep, could indicate underlying sleep-disordered breathing.
  • Significant impacts on daytime functioning, such as excessive daytime sleepiness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, behavioral problems, or impaired academic performance
  • Excessive movement, restlessness, or unusual behaviors during sleep, such as night terrors, sleepwalking, or talking during sleep
  • Persistent bedwetting beyond age 5 or recurrent bedwetting accompanied by other sleep disturbances or daytime symptoms. 


Key Takeaways

The establishment of healthy sleep habits in children is paramount for their development. By prioritizing adequate sleep and implementing consistent bedtime routines, parents can nurture optimal growth, cognitive function, and emotional well-being in their children. Parents should be patient and persistent in implementing sleep strategies, recognizing that building healthy sleep habits takes time and consistency. When children face persistent sleep problems and related issues, a doctor can assess if a sleep disorder or other underlying health problem may be causing symptoms.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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