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Children’s sleep: 20 frequently asked questions

Children’s sleep: 20 frequently asked questions

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Key points

  • Good habits like bedtime routines and getting enough exercise during the day can make it easier for your child to fall asleep.
  • Children’s sleep habits like snoring, night terrors and teeth-grinding are usually harmless, but see a GP if you’re concerned.
  • Behaviour strategies can help with some sleep problems, like getting out of bed a lot.

You can often handle sleep difficulties by setting up a positive bedtime routine and using our tips to help children sleep better. But you should see your GP if you’re worried that sleep problems are affecting your child’s wellbeing, schoolwork or relationships. You should also see your GP if you’re worried that your child has a medical condition or illness that’s affecting her sleep.

My three-year-old twitches as she falls asleep. Is this normal?

Yes. These twitches are probably ‘sleep starts’ – quick jerks of the arms and legs that happen as your child falls asleep. Up to 70% of children and grown-ups have sleep starts. Tiredness, stress or lack of sleep might make them worse, so it can be worth checking your child’s sleep habits. If the jerks are repetitive rather than just one or two quick movements, or if they happen throughout the night, you should check with your GP.

Is it normal that I have to wake my eight-year-old up for school?

It could be normal, but most primary school-age children wake by themselves in the morning if they’re getting enough sleep at night. Check your child’s sleep habits to see whether he’s getting enough sleep for a school-age child. And always see your GP if you’re concerned.

My child snores and gasps at night. Should I be worried?

Snoring can be caused by a cold or a blocked nose. It’ll usually sort itself out when the cold has gone.

If the snoring doesn’t go away and happens most nights, even when your child is well, it could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnoea. Obstructive sleep apnoea causes your child to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. See your GP if your child continually snores, stops breathing during sleep, works hard to breathe, breathes through her mouth, tosses and turns at night, or sweats a lot overnight. These breathing difficulties can make your child wake up tired and cranky in the morning.

Is my child getting enough sleep? How much sleep do different ages need?

Different children need different amounts of sleep, so it can be hard to know whether your child is getting enough. You can check the recommended amount of sleep for your child’s age in these articles:

  • Toddler sleep
  • Preschooler sleep
  • School-age sleep
  • Sleep for children 12-18 years.
When should a child stop napping? How long should a nap be?

Around 25% of children stop napping by three years. Another 50% stop at 3-4 years. Most children have stopped napping by five years if they’re getting enough sleep at night. Naps can range from 30 minutes to around two hours.

If you’re having bedtime struggles, try letting your child have a shorter nap earlier in the day – for example, a nap after lunch. If your child won’t have a daytime nap, try to give him some quiet time resting in his room or encourage him to do something quiet, like reading with you or looking at picture books by himself.

What does it mean if my child wakes up grumpy?

The most likely reason for your child waking up grumpy is that she hasn’t had enough sleep. But if she’s sleeping the right amount for her age, waking up grumpy might mean that she isn’t getting good-quality sleep. If your child is snoring or very restless overnight, see your GP to have her checked for a sleep problem.

How do I get my child to sleep before midnight?

Here are some ideas to help your child get to sleep earlier:

  • Encourage your child to go to bed and get up around the same time every day. This can help get his body clock into a regular rhythm. For example, on weekends a sleep-in of an hour is OK, but it’s best to avoid longer sleep-ins. These might lead to your child not feeling tired at night.
  • Discourage late-night eating, and encourage your child to have breakfast when he gets up in the morning.
  • Allow plenty of time – for example, 40 minutes – for your child to have a wind-down before turning off the lights to go to sleep. Encourage quiet activities like reading a book or magazine, drawing, writing, playing card games or doing puzzles.
  • Turn off electronic stimulation in your child’s bedroom at least one hour before bedtime. This includes all screens – mobile phones, tablets, computer screens and TV.

During puberty, children start to secrete melatonin later at night than they did in earlier childhood. This affects their circadian rhythm. It means that your child will want to go to bed later at night and get up later in the morning.

Your teenage child will probably sleep better and function better during the day if he has a set bedtime for school nights. You can find more information in our illustrated guide to teenage sleep habits.

What can I do through the day to improve my child’s sleep?

These tips for daytime might help improve your child’s sleep at night:

  • Give your child a healthy breakfast to help kick-start her body clock.
  • Encourage your child to get as much natural light as possible during the day, especially in the morning. Daylight switches off your child’s melatonin and helps her wake up and be alert. Darkness switches on melatonin to make her sleepy.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active and to exercise. Physical activity helps children to sleep longer.
  • Keep your child away from caffeine – in energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate and cola – especially in the late afternoon and evening.
  • Make sure your child has a satisfying evening meal at a reasonable time. Feeling hungry or too full before bed can make your child more alert or uncomfortable. This can make it harder to get to sleep.
How do I stop my children from going crazy at bedtime, which is also when my partner gets home from work?

It’s normal for your partner to want to have some fun with your children after work. It’s only a problem if it’s noisy, active play that makes it harder for your children to settle into bed for sleep.

Talk with your partner about creating a family routine that works for your family, including quiet time under dim light for an hour before the children’s bedtime. For example, your partner might be able to arrive home earlier. If this isn’t possible, your partner might be able to read quietly with the children before lights out.

How can I move my child’s bedtime to an earlier time?

To help your child fall asleep earlier, start with his current bedtime and change it gradually by starting the bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier about every two days. Most children will fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed. If your child is lying awake in bed for more than 20-30 minutes after lights out, you might need to keep bedtime at the same time for a couple of weeks before making it earlier again.

Try to get your child up at about the same time each morning, including on weekends. A regular morning wake time can help with keeping a regular bedtime.

How can I get my six-year-old to sleep in her own bed?

Here are some ideas to help your child fall asleep in her own bed:

  • Set up a regular bedtime routine – for example, bath, story and bed.
  • Check that your child’s bedroom is dimly lit and quiet enough.
  • Use camping out – this is a gradual and gentle technique where you sit with your child until she falls asleep, and then gradually move your chair out of the room over a period of 1-3 weeks.
  • Encourage good sleep habits during the day – for example, getting plenty of sunlight and exercise.
  • Praise your child when you notice she’s trying to make changes to sleep patterns. You could also try a reward chart to encourage the bedtime behaviour you want.

If you’re planning to make changes to your child’s bedtime routine and sleep habits, it might help to explain your plans for a new bedtime routine to your child. Be consistent with sticking to the plan.

How do I deal with my eight-year-old’s fears and anxieties at bedtime?

You could try sleep relaxation strategies to handle bedtime worries. For example, talk about your child’s fears with him or get him to try writing his thoughts in a journal. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises might also help.

How do I stop my child from calling out and getting out of bed at night?

A positive bedtime routine can cut down on bedtime battles. Once your child is in bed, let her know that you expect her to stay quietly in her bed until sleep comes. Going to bed too early can make this problem worse, so think about how long it takes your child to fall asleep after the lights are turned off.

Read our article on calling out and getting out of bed for more tips and strategies.

What do I do about my child’s head-banging and rocking to sleep?

Head-banging, body-rocking and head-rolling are nearly always harmless, and your child is likely to outgrow them.

Try to ignore the behaviour, work on ways to reduce the noise, and keep your child safe. For example, you could move the bed away from the wall and check and tighten the bed screws. Sometimes moving the mattress onto the floor in the middle of the room helps to ease the disruption to the rest of the family. See your GP if you’re worried.

My three-year-old demands bottles of milk overnight. How can I stop this pattern?

This is probably happening because your child has a habit of needing a bottle to fall asleep. When he wakes and can’t get back to sleep during the night, he calls for a bottle.

Here are some tips for phasing out night feeds and helping your child learn to sleep independently:

  • Choose your timing. A period of change or stress for you or your child might not be a good time to give up the bottle.
  • Talk to your child about giving up the bottle.
  • Encourage the use of other comforters like a blanket or teddy.
  • When your child manages to give up the bottle, have a big celebration or give your child a reward.
  • Try not to turn back. No matter how well you’ve prepared your child for this change, expect some discomfort and some protest.
How do I stop my five-year-old from sleepwalking?

You can start by checking that your child is getting enough sleep. An earlier bedtime, or a regular bedtime, might reduce sleepwalking.

If your child is sleepwalking, make sure she’s safe by clearing any obstacles from the bedroom and hallways, locking the front and back doors, removing trip hazards and checking there are no sharp objects around.

Around 7-15% of children sleepwalk, and many sleeptalk too. Usually, it’s nothing to worry about. Children often grow out of these habits as teenagers, but see your GP if you’re worried.

My child sometimes wakes up distressed, crying and inconsolable. What should I do?

If your child won’t respond to comforting or soothing but is otherwise well, he might be having a night terror. Stay calm and avoid waking or touching your child unless he’s at risk of hurting himself. Night terrors can be distressing to watch, but they don’t harm your child, and he won’t remember them in the morning.

Night terrors can happen if your child isn’t getting enough sleep, so it’s worth checking your child’s sleep patterns. They can also be worse or happen more often if your child is unwell or has a fever. Sometimes worries and anxieties can lead to more night terrors.

If you’re worried about your child’s health or wellbeing, or the night terrors seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice.

What should I do when my child has a nightmare?

If your child wakes up after a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Let her know that everything is OK and she is safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again. You could also think about things that are happening during the day – like watching a scary TV show – that might be causing the nightmares.

It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is having nightmares and is also really anxious during the day. Also seek help if your child has been through a traumatic event and is having nightmares about it.

My child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and poor sleep. How can I change this?

You can manage and overcome many sleep difficulties in your child with ASD using common behaviour strategies. You can also encourage good sleep habits for your child with ASD, including regular sleep times, positive bedtime routines and appropriate bedtimes.

My child has a developmental delay. How can I help him sleep better?

You can manage and overcome many of your child’s sleep issues using common bedtime behaviour strategies. A regular and predictable bedtime routine will help your child know that it’s time for sleep. Telling your child you expect him to stay in bed will reinforce the message.

You might also try strategies like camping out or returning your child to bed. Some nights you might need to take him back to bed several times. Talk to your health professional if you’re worried.

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