Sleep habits, like other behaviours, need to be learned.

It is important to introduce a bedtime routine as it teaches your child the order of events leading up to bedtime and can help prevent sleep problems later on.

If you put your baby down in their cot whilst they are awake they will learn how to fall asleep without the need for rocking or cuddling them to sleep. If they get used to falling asleep in your arms, they may need nursing back to sleep if they wake up again.

An example of a routine could be:

  • bath, then put on night clothes
  • supper or milky drink
  • brush teeth
  • go to bed
  • bedtime story
  • make sure comforter (dummy, cuddly toy or security blanket) is nearby, then
  • good night kiss and cuddle.
  • a bedtime routine should not include lively games, or a television.
  • you could leave a dim light on if necessary.

Children who wake during the night have learned that if they cry, something nice will happen. The nice things might be a cuddle, drink, or simply seeing you. Any of these things will make it more likely that your child will continue to wake in the night.

For more information, you can access the UNICEF booklet Caring for your baby at night

Please explore the following sections for more information:

Just as with adults, babies’ and children’s sleep patterns vary. From birth some babies need more or less sleep than others. The following list shows the average amount of sleep babies and children will need during a 24 hours period including daytime naps.

  • Birth to 3 months Most new-born babies spend more time asleep than awake. Total daily sleep can vary from eight hours up to 16-18 hours. Babies will wake during the night because they need to be fed. Being too hot or cold can also disturb their sleep.
  • Three to 6 months As your baby grows they will need fewer night feeds and be able to sleep for longer stretches. Some babies will sleep for around eight hours or even longer at night. By four months, they could be spending around twice as long sleeping at night as they do during the day.
  • 6 to 12 months At this age, night feeds may no longer be necessary, and some babies will sleep for up to 12 hours at a stretch at night. However, teething discomfort or hunger may wake some babies during the night.
  • 12 months Babies will sleep for around 12-15 hours altogether.
  • 2 years Most two year olds will sleep for about 11-12 hours at night, with one or two naps in the day.
  • 3 to 4 years Most will need about 12 hours of sleep, but the amount can range from eight hours up to 14. Some young children will still need a nap during the day.

My child will not go to bed

  • Think about what time you want your child to go to bed.
  • Close to the time that your child normally falls asleep, start a 20 minute ‘winding down’ bedtime routine. Bring this forward by five-10 minutes a week (or 15 minutes a week if your child has got into the habit of going to bed very late) until you get to the bedtime you want.
  • Try to set a limit on the amount of time you spend with your child when you put them to bed. For example you could read one story only, then tuck your child in and say goodnight.
  • Make sure your child has their dummy, if they use one favourite toy or comforter before settling to bed.
  • Leave a dim light on if necessary.
  • If you keep checking your child you might wake them up, so leave it until you are sure that they are asleep.
  • The important thing is to be firm and consistent and not to give in.

My child keeps waking up during the night

Up to half of all children under five go through periods of night waking. Some will just go back to sleep on their own, others will cry or want company. If this happens, try to work out why your child is waking up.

For example:

  • are they hungry? A later feed or some cereal and milk last thing at night might help your child to sleep through the night.
  • are they afraid of the dark? You could try using a nightlight or leaving a landing light on.
  • is your child waking because of night fears or bad dreams? If so, try to find out if something is bothering them.
  • is your child too hot or too cold? You could adjust their bedclothes or the heating in the room and see if that helps.

If there is no obvious cause, and your child continues to wake up, cry and/or demand company, then you could try some of the following suggestions:

  • Scheduled waking. If your child wakes up at the same time every night, try waking them between 15 minutes and an hour before this time, then settling them back to sleep.
  • Let your child sleep in the same room as a brother or sister. If you think your child may be lonely, and their brother or sisters doesn’t object, try putting them in the same room. This can help them both to sleep through the night.
  • Nightmares are quite common. They often begin between the ages of 18 months and three years.  Nightmares are not usually a sign of emotional disturbance. They may happen if your child is anxious about something or has been frightened by a TV programme or story. After a nightmare, your child will need comfort and reassurance.
  • Night terrors. These can start before the age of one, but are most common in three and four year olds. Usually, the child will scream or start thrashing around while they are still asleep. They usually happen after the child has been asleep for a couple of hours. They may sit up and talk or look terrified while they are still asleep. Night terrors are not usually a sign of any serious problems, and your child will eventually grow out of them. You should not wake your child during a night terror, but if they are happening at the same time each night, try breaking the pattern by gently waking your child 15 minutes beforehand. Keep your child awake for a few minutes, then let them go back to sleep. They will not remember anything in the morning. Seeing your child have a night terror can be very upsetting, but they are not dangerous and will not have any lasting effects.
  • Tackle it together with your partner. If you have a partner, you should agree between you how to tackle your child’s sleeping problems, as you don’t want to try to decide what to do in the middle of the night! If you both agree what is best for your child, it will be easier to stick to your plan.

It can take patience, consistency and commitment, but most sleep problems can be solved.

Although we don’t yet know how to completely prevent SIDS, it is possible to significantly lower the chances of it happening by following this advice. You should try to follow the advice for all sleep periods where possible, not just at night.

Things you can do:

  • always place your baby on their back to sleep
  • keep your baby smoke free during pregnancy and after birth
  • place your baby to sleep in a separate cot or Moses basket in the same room as you for the first six months
  • breastfeed your baby, if you can
  • use a firm, flat, waterproof mattress in good condition

Things to avoid:

  • never sleep on a sofa or in an armchair with your baby
  • don’t sleep in the same bed as your baby if you smoke, drink or take drugs or are extremely tired, if your baby was born prematurely or was of low birth-weight
  • avoid letting your baby get too hot
  • don’t cover your baby’s face or head while sleeping or use loose bedding
  • don’t use pillows or duvets
  • don’t use cot bumpers
  • don’t use soft toys
  • don’t use products to keep baby in one sleeping position, such as wedges or straps

For more information visit The Lullaby Trust

If you require help with sleep, speak to your health visitor. It may be helpful for you to complete the sleep diary below.


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