Header Graphic
Children and sleep


What’s there to know about sleeping?
Sleep problems are some of the most common problems parents face with their kids.  You may wonder about how to get your child to sleep through the night.  Maybe you have a new baby and want to learn how to help them develop good sleep habits that will last a lifetime.  Some children may have chronic sleep difficulties, and many children (like most adults!) are actually going through their days sleep-deprived.  Read on for information on all these issues and more, and for lots of links to even more resources to help your kids (and you) get a better night’s sleep.

What do I need to know about sleep cycles?
When people sleep, they cycle between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.  In REM, your eyes move around fast, you don’t move your body much, and you dream.  REM is light sleep and the stage when your infant or child is most likely to wake up.  NREM sleep is deep sleep. 

In normal sleep, a child cycles between light sleep and deep sleep.  Each light sleep stage is a time when the child is more likely to wake up. 

What do I need to know about how babies sleep?
Infants go through a complete sleep cycle about every 50-60 minutes, so they are in light sleep and could wake up many times each night! 

Newborns just sleep any old time, on and off, all through the day and night.  By age four months, your baby will probably be sleeping a 6-8 hour chunk at night, and by age 6 months, about 10-12 hours.  But that’s not to say that they won’t wake up during that time!  Most babies still wake up at least once a night even at age nine months.  Some can get back to sleep by themselves, and some need you to help them fall back asleep.  If all this night waking is not working for your family, then you may find some helpful resources on this page, so read on! 

A special note about babies and sleep safety: Healthy babies should be put down to sleep on their backs to lower the risk of SIDS. Be sure all your baby’s caregivers are aware of the safe sleep guidelines. Find out more about Safe Sleep.

What do I need to know about school-age children and sleep?
School-aged children still need somewhere between 9 and 12 hours of sleep at night. At this age, kids usually start a trend toward becoming more and more sleep deprived. As the parents, you will need to help figure out how much sleep your child needs. Your child is getting the right amount of sleep if they:

  • Can fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes.
  • Can wake up easily at the time they need to get up and don't need you to keep bugging them to get up.
  • Are awake and alert all day, and don't need a nap during the day.  Check with your child’s teacher and make sure your child is able to stay awake and alert during school.

In other words, if your child can go to bed, fall asleep easily, wake up easily, and not be tired during the day, then they're getting enough sleep.

Is your child complaining about a bedtime that’s earlier than their friends’ bedtimes, and saying that everyone else gets to stay up later?  Let them know that every child is different and that this is their bedtime.  Tell your kid that you’re keeping their bedtime at the right time for them because it’s healthy. They’ll feel better during the day if they sleep well at night.

A recent study [1] surveyed kindergarten through fourth grade kids and their parents and teachers about the children’s sleep.  Teachers reported that about 10% of the kids were falling asleep in school.  Like us adults, many of our school-age kids are sleep deprived.  Remember, letting kids stay up later isn’t doing them a favor.

What if my teenager seems tired all the time?
Take a look at these pointers for parents on teens and sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.  If you have a tired teen, have them read about teens and sleep on a page just for teens. Print out Awake at the Wheel-it's an interactive brochure for teens-and discuss it with them. Also for teens: Eight Sleep-Smart Tips for Teens.

  • The National Sleep Foundation Teens and Sleep homepage has many more great resources.

How do I teach my child good sleep habits?
Here are some "Do’s and Don’ts":


  • Make bedtime a special time.  It should be a time for you to interact with your child in a way that is secure and loving, yet firm. At bedtime, spend some special time with your child. Be firm and go through a certain bedtime routine that your child is used to. At the end of that routine the lights go off and it is time to fall asleep.
  • Put some thought into finding your child’s ideal bedtime.  In the evening, look for the time when your child really is starting to slow down and getting physically tired. That's the time that they should be going to sleep, so get their bedtime routine done and get them into bed before that time. If you wait beyond that time, then your child tends to get a second wind.  At that point they will become more difficult to handle, and will have a harder time falling asleep. 
  • Keep to a regular daily routine—the same waking time, meal times, nap time and play times will help your baby to feel secure and comfortable, and help with a smooth bedtime.  Babies and children like to know what to expect.
  • Use a simple, regular bedtime routine.  It should not last too long and should take place primarily in the room where the child will sleep.  It may include a few simple, quiet activities, such as a light snack, bath, cuddling, saying goodnight, and a story or lullaby. The kinds of activities in the routine will depend on the child’s age.
  • Make sure the sleep routines you use can be used anywhere, so you can help your baby get to sleep wherever you may be. 
  • Some babies are soothed by the sound of a vaporizer or fan running.  This "white noise" not only blocks out the distraction of other sounds, it also simulates the sounds babies hear in the womb. Small, portable white noise machines with a variety of different sounds are now available.
  • Make sure your kids have interesting and varied activities during the day, including physical activity and fresh air.
  • Use light to your advantage.  Keep lights dim in the evening as bedtime approaches.  In the morning, get your child into bright light, and, if possible, take them outside.  Light helps signal the brain into the right sleep-wake cycle.


  • Never soothe your child to sleep by putting them to bed with a bottle of juice, milk or formula.  Water is okay.  Anything other than water in the bottle can cause baby bottle tooth decay. Feed or nurse your baby, and then put them down to sleep.
  • Don’t start giving solids before about 6 months of age.  Starting solid food sooner will not help your baby sleep though the night.  In fact, if you give your baby solids before their system can digest them, they may sleep worse because they have a tummy ache!  The American Academy of Pediatrics says that breast milk or formula is all a baby needs to eat until six months of age.  (See Feeding Your Baby and Toddler on YourChild for more on starting solids.)  Contrary to popular belief, a heavier baby or a baby with a stuffed-full tummy is not more likely to sleep through the night. 
  • Don’t fill up your child’s bed with toys.  It’s probably best to keep your child’s bed a place to sleep, rather than a place to play.  Too many toys in the bed can be distracting.  One or two transitional objects--like a favorite doll, a security blanket, or a special book--are okay, and can help with separation issues.  Babies under 4-6 months should have an empty crib to prevent suffocation. (See YourChild: Safe Sleep for more on bedtime safety guidelines.)
  • Never use sending your child to bed as a threat. Bedtime needs to be a secure, loving time, not a punishment.  Your goal is to teach your kids that bedtime is enjoyable, just as it is for us adults.  If the feeling around bedtime is a good feeling, your child will fall asleep easier.
  • Don’t give your child foods and drinks with caffeine in them, like hot chocolate, tea, cola, chocolate, etc.  Even caffeine earlier in the day could disrupt your child’s sleep cycle.
  • Don't let your child watch more than one to two hours of TV during the day, and don't let them watch TV at bedtime at all. TV viewing at bedtime has been linked to poor sleep.
  • If your child has a TV set in their bedroom, remove it. Research shows watching TV is linked to sleep problems [2] [3] , especially if the TV set is in the child’s bedroom. The presence of other media, such as a computer, video games or Internet in a kid’s bedroom is also associated with worse sleep [4].

What are the problems that can come up with kids' sleep?
Sleep deprivation: Not getting enough sleep can lead to serious problems for your child and is all too common in our society.
Night waking All children have times at night when they sleep more lightly or wake up.  Night waking can become a problem when it is very frequent or when your child has trouble getting back to sleep.
Sleep onset associations:  This is the most common cause of children not being able to settle back to sleep.  Whatever they associate with falling asleep, like being rocked or a sucking a pacifier needs to be present for them to fall back to sleep.
Separation issues:  Separation problems can affect either you or your child.  Your child may feel anxious if you are not there, and so is unable to relax and sleep.  Likewise, you may feel anxious about your child, and go in to them every time they make a peep at night, even if they don’t need you.
Resistance to sleep/settling problems:  This is when your child does not want to go to bed at night.  They throw a tantrum, or stall, and just refuse to go to sleep.
Parasomnias:  These are disruptive sleep-related problems.  They are usually not anything serious.  They include things like teeth grinding and night terrors.

How can I tell if my child is sleep deprived?  How much sleep do kids need? 
This chart shows you some averages.  It will give you an idea of the ballpark you should be aiming for, depending on your child’s age.  Some kids will need more or less sleep, and differ in how they nap. 


Nighttime Sleep


Daytime Sleep


Total Sleep


1 month

8.5 (many naps)

7.5 (many naps)


3 months




6 months




9 months


3 (2 naps)


12 months


2.5 (2 naps)


18 months


2.5 (1-2 naps)


2 years


2 (1 nap)


3 years


1.5 (1 nap)


4 years




5 years




6 years




7 years




8 years




9 years




10 years




11 years




12-13 years




14 years




15 years




16 years




Different people need different amounts of sleep.  Remember that charts that list the average amount of sleep for each age group are just that—averages.  These are not magic numbers.  The best way to tell if your child is getting enough sleep is to look at how they act while they are awake.  Here are some things to consider about how much sleep is enough

If your child’s poor sleep is causing daytime problems, then they are sleep deprived.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your child fall asleep in the car almost every time you drive with them?
  • Do you have to wake your child up almost every morning?
  • Does your child seem overtired, cranky, irritable, aggressive, over-emotional, hyperactive, or have trouble thinking during the day?
  • On some nights, does your child “crash” much earlier than their usual bedtime?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child may be sleep deprived (not getting enough sleep).  We live in a very sleep deprived society.  Sleep deprived children (and adults) have more trouble controlling their emotions.  The part of the brain that helps us to control our actions and our response to feelings is affected greatly by lack of sleep.  Not getting enough sleep can lead to all kinds of problems, such as behavior problems, attention problems, and not doing well in school [5]. Kids who don't get enough sleep are also more apt to hurt themselves {6] [7] .

Go more in depth on sleep deprivation:

What do I need to know about night waking?  What if my child wakes up a lot at night?
Infants and night waking
Does everyone always ask you: ”So, is your baby sleeping through the night yet?”  Sleep is often a major topic of conversation when there’s a baby in the family. Remember:  it is normal for babies to wake up at night.  Breastfed babies may wake more often than formula fed babies because breast milk is so quickly and easily digested.  Your new baby is likely hungry every two or three hours, and needs to nurse to get back to sleep.  Some time after about 6 months of age, your breastfed baby will probably be able to go 6-8 hours without nursing. 

To help you cope with night waking, try taking turns with your partner to get up and comfort your baby.  Remember, this is a time to comfort and re-settle your child, not a time for play or anything else exciting.  Be comforting but boring.  Don’t respond to any games your child may try to start.

What causes night waking
Babies and young children are less likely to sleep through the night if they:

  • Were premature or had complications during their birth.
  • Have a difficult temperament.
  • Are breastfed.
  • Are feeding at night.  Before about 4-6 months, babies need to eat at night—they wake up and are hungry.  Six-month-old babies can go longer at night without being fed. Older babies may develop the habit of feeding to get back to sleep.
  • Sleep in their parent’s bed (co-sleep).  It may be that parents bring night waking children into their bed, rather than bed-sharing causing night waking.  Parents who are accepting of co-sleeping report less sleep problems compared to those who are not.
  • Live in a family that is under stress.
  • Have a mom who is depressed.  Research does not show that mom’s depression causes sleep problems, only that children with moms who are depressed have more night waking.  In any case, we do know that kids with parents who are blue or depressed have more sleep problems and more problems overall.  If you are feeling down, don’t hesitate to get help. 
  • When you are tired at night you are at your lowest point. If you start feeling desperate, get help--get your partner, call a friend, or (in Michigan) call the free Parent Helpline at 1-800-942-4357.  They will not ask your name, and can offer helpful support and guidance. If you feel that you might hurt your child, make sure they are safe and then leave until you can cope.

If your child is waking often, here are some possible causes to consider—and to talk to your child’s doctor about:

If your child wakes, how quickly and easily they fall back asleep will depend in part on what their sleep onset association is, so read on….

What are sleep-onset associations?
Whatever your baby connects with falling asleep (like being rocked, fed, or sucking their thumb, for example) is called a sleep-onset association.  When they wake up, they will need that thing to be able to fall back to sleep.  If you want your child to go back to sleep on their own when they wake up at night, then you should encourage sleep-onset associations that do not involve you, the parents.  How do you do this?  When you put your child to bed, you can rock or feed your child to make them sleepy, but stop before they actually go to sleep.  Put your child to bed when they are still awake, so they learn to go to sleep without you there.  Children who have a more difficult temperament may have more trouble with sleep-onset associations.

What do separation problems have to do with sleep? 
Separation anxiety is a very common reason for children under three years to cry at night. By eight or nine months, children have learned that their parents exist even if they can't see them. However the inner confidence to be able to feel secure when their parents are not there is still developing until three or four years of age. Night waking usually drops off quickly after this. You can tell if your child is waking due to separation anxiety because if you are nearby to reassure them, they will settle back to sleep.  For older children, you can put a foam mattress and sleeping bag on the floor near your bed, so they can come in and sleep near you if they need nighttime reassurance.  

To help prevent separation problems at night, when your child is between four months and a year old, give them a transitional object (like a blanket, doll or other favorite thing).  Then when they wake up, having that object there will comfort them and help them go back to sleep.

Your baby may groan and move around, or even cry out during REM sleep.  Wait a little before you go to them.  If you want your baby to be able to sleep without your help, give them a chance to fall back into deep sleep on their own.

Sometimes parents are overly anxious about their baby or child.  Have you ever been away from your baby?  Do you worry about your baby all the time when you are away?  Do you have trouble not going to your baby at night every time they stir or make a peep?  You might have separation issues of your own.  Some parents have lots of trouble separating from their baby.  This is something you need to work on if you want your baby to be able to sleep through the night.  Your difficulty with separation can cause problems for your child down the road in many areas. 

What if my child has problems settling in at night or resists going to sleep?
There are different reasons your child may not want to go to bed at night.  Find out why your child is a night owl, and read about some strategies to try.

Your child may have issues with autonomy.  In other words, they may want to have more control over their body and their environment.  This usually starts to happen after about nine months of age, and is what two-year-olds are famous for!  Give your child some limited choice and “control” over the type of bedtime activities and the order of the bedtime routine.   If your child has more control over these activities, they may feel less need to exercise control over when they fall asleep.

If your older child resists going to sleep at night, remember this:  It is your responsibility to put your child to bed, but it is your child’s responsibility to go to sleep.  Put your child to bed at a reasonable time after a reasonable bedtime routine.  Have clear rules (stay in bed, no eating, etc.).  Then, if your child doesn’t fall asleep, it may be that they don’t need so much sleep.  If they stay awake late, and then want to sleep late in the morning, wake them up 10 minutes to a half hour earlier every morning until they are falling asleep at the time you want at night. 

Basically, you should discuss the bedtime routine during the day so that the child knows what to expect at night.   Then stick with it each night. If kids know what to expect, then they'll usually do okay.

What are parasomnias?
Parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related events, and usually not too serious.  They include:

What are nightmares and night terrors (also called sleep terrors) and how are they different?


Night terrors


Time of night

Early, usually within 4 hours of bedtime

Later in the night

How child acts

Confused and disoriented

Scared and upset

Response to parents

Doesn’t know parents are there, can’t comfort

Can be comforted

Memory of event

Usually none

Can remember dream

Return to sleep

Usually quick, unless fully awakened

Often delayed by fear

Sleep stage

Deep non-REM sleep

Light, REM sleep

If your child wakes up with a nightmare, gently lay them down and say “go back to sleep, now”.  It is very important not to try to talk much about it, because talking doesn’t work.  Just soothe them however you usually do (for example, by gently stroking their hair or back) until they can relax and go back to sleep. 

If your child has night terrors, you will not be able to comfort them.  Your child is actually still asleep, like with sleepwalking or talking in their sleep.  Try not to disturb your child, but stay near them and make sure they don’t hurt themselves.  Being overtired and staying up too late can cause night terrors, so make sure your child is getting enough sleep.  Read more about coping with night terrors.

What is sleep apnea?
Apnea means having short pauses in the breathing pattern. The pauses in breathing are usually normal, but sometimes can be a problem. The usual cause of obstructive sleep apnea is enlarged tonsils or adenoids that block the upper airway when the child is sleeping. If your suspect your child has obstructive sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about having your child evaluated.

How can I help my child (and myself) sleep better?  What are some strategies I can try?
There are different reasons kids have trouble sleeping, and some different expert opinions on how to help them.  Your family should learn about the various approaches, and decide what feels most comfortable for you and for your child.  Remember, with any of these approaches, to be consistent, keep bedtime calm, and let your child know you love them.  You should not to follow any program to the letter if your intuition tells you it’s not right for your child.  Different approaches may work better or worse for different children in different families.  If you feel you or your child is just too distressed by a given method, try something else more comfortable for you.

Here are some approaches you could try, along with some links for more detail on how to follow the program:

  • Cutting back on nighttime nursing:  If your breastfed baby is under six months, they probably still need to nurse at night.  Even at six months, your baby may well be hungry after only about six hours of sleep.  Growth spurts will also cause your baby to be hungrier at night.  But if your older baby or toddler is nursing a lot at night, and you want them to cut back so you can get more sleep, here are some helpful hints:
    • Tank your baby up with more feedings during the day.
    • Get your baby used to falling asleep other ways, such as being rocked by your partner, or carried around the house in a baby sling or carrier.
    • If your baby is sleeping with you, increase the physical distance between you at night.  Try a “sidecar” arrangement, with baby’s crib next to your bed, or even have the nursing mom sleep in a different room a few nights, and let the other parent soothe your baby back to sleep.  The conventional wisdom says that it usually takes about 3 nights to wean a baby (who is ready) from nighttime nursing.
    • For more information and support related to nursing your baby, explore the La Leche League website, which has a wealth of information. You can also find your local leaders and local groups from the LLL website.
    • Here are some more strategies to try with the "all-night nurser."
  • “Ferber method”:  You can try a modified “cry it out” approach, like the “Ferber method.”  In this approach, you wait a little longer each time your child wakes up and cries before you go in to comfort them. We do not recommend teaching your baby to put themselves to sleep in this way until after about 12-18 months of age.   In the opinion of our panel of experienced developmental and behavioral pediatricians, it is important to form strong baby-parent and parent-baby attachments in the first year of life, and letting a baby cry uncomforted may interfere with that process.
  • Modified Ferber method:  You may want to try a "modified Ferber method," where one parent goes in to the crying child every five to ten minutes (rather than waiting longer and longer each time) until the child eventually falls asleep.  The idea is that the child will need less and less time each night to get back to sleep, until they finally sleep through the night.

    After going through your child's bedtime ritual, put them down and rub or pat their back. Play a lullaby tape or CD, wind up a musical toy, or turn on some kind of "white noise." Expect your baby to have some trouble letting you go-this is typical separation anxiety.

    If your baby cries, wait five to ten minutes before you go back in to comfort them. It should take about that long to fall asleep. When you go in, say almost nothing---just briefly reassure your baby that you are there. Don't give a bottle or pick the baby up. Definitely, do not play with your baby. That would give them an incentive to wake up! Keep checking on your child every five to ten minutes as long as they cry. You can follow the same pattern if the baby wakes in the night.

    You can expect it to take about a week of this before your baby is falling asleep alone without too much fuss. If your baby has been sleeping well every night, and then suddenly cries out one night---go see what's wrong right away. If your baby is having trouble like not feeling well, colic, or earache, pick them up and comfort them.

    The bad news is, that with approaches like this and the Ferber method, after family trips or after an illness, you may have to start over from scratch and re-train the baby.

  • Sharing sleep (Co-sleeping or family bed):  You could try sharing sleep with your child, either in the same bed or in the same room to make it easy to offer nighttime comfort and breastfeeding without anyone having to fully wake up.   Make sure your sleep sharing arrangement is safe for your baby.
  • Getting your child out of your bed:  If your child will only sleep in your bed with you, and that is not working out well for your family, then read about how to help your child learn to sleep in their own bed.  Most children are accepting of leaving the parent’s bed between ages 2-3.  The key is to wean them gradually into their own bed.  Start with a futon or pad on the floor in your room, and after a while move them into a bed in their own room.
  • Getting your child to stay in bed in the morning:  Learn some tips on how to handle an early riser.

What is a sleep diary?  How might it help with my child’s sleep?
Try keeping a sleep diary for a period of time.  Looking at this information over a period of days or weeks may help you find some patterns.  Once you see patterns, you may be able to find a solution.  Also, if you go to see your child’s pediatrician about your child’s sleep problems, bring along the sleep diary.  Here’s what you should keep track of:

  • What time they woke up in the morning
  • Times and lengths of naps during the day
  • What time they went to bed in the evening
  • What time they settled in bed in the evening
  • Issues in settling, what you did, and how it worked
  • Times and lengths of waking at night
  • What you did about night waking and how it worked

How can I decide whether a crib or sharing sleep (co-sleeping) is better for my family?

Surveys show that many American parents sleep with their children for all or part of the night.  A study by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development called the National Infant Sleep Position (NISP) study estimated that nearly 50 percent of the infants in the study spent at least some time in the last two weeks sleeping on an adult bed at night, with 20 percent doing so half the time or more, and 13 percent usually sleeping on an adult bed at night [8].

Doctors do not all agree on whether co-sleeping is safe. Their concern is based on statistics that show that half of all child suffocation deaths occur in adult beds due to overlaying or suffocation in bedding. Therefore, many experts recommend not sleeping with your baby at all. Other doctors, however, believe co-sleeping can be safe if the necessary safety precautions are taken. For more information on safe sleeping arrangements, visit YourChild: Safe Sleep.

Here are some of the pros and cons of each arrangement:



Parents’ Bed


A restless baby is less likely to disturb parents, and vice versa.

It’s easier for parents to be intimate at night.

Sleeping independently is valued in American culture.

Parents get a break from time with baby to “recharge their batteries.”

Parents don’t have to get up at night to soothe or nurse baby, and can soothe baby back to sleep without anyone fully waking.

Working parents can spend more time with child.

Sharing sleep can help foster a strong attachment to your child.

The time your child will spend sharing sleep with you is very short in the big picture.

Around the world, the norm is for babies to sleep with their parents, and, some would say, it is the “natural” way to sleep.


Parents have to get up at night to soothe baby.

Your baby may be very upset and difficult to soothe back to sleep by the time you wake and go in to them.

It may become difficult to transition child to their own bed until age 2-4, if they still sleep in parent’s bed after about age 6 months.

Sleep-sharing creates a sleep-onset association that involves the parents (but parents who enjoy sharing sleep do not view this as a negative).

Both parents must be committed to the arrangement, or it will cause conflict between them.