The Age-by-Age Guide to Better Bedtimes

Want to help your kids fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up in their own bed? Check out these expert-approved guidelines on creating better bedtimes by age.

Toddler girl yawning at bedtime
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Up to 50% of children experience a sleep problem, according to a study published in American Family Physician. Though there are sometimes biological explanations for disrupted sleep, "the vast majority of sleep problems are caused by parents unintentionally not allowing children to get the sleep they need," asserts Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School. "There are too many activities—both parents' and child's—that interfere with an early bedtime."

Other experts point out that many children, having been rocked or nursed to sleep (or allowed to fall asleep in their parents' beds) since birth, have simply never learned to fall asleep on their own.

It's important to develop good sleep hygiene early. That's because proper night's rest is crucial for children's healthy growth, immune function, and behavior. Exhausted kids are more likely to be cranky, impatient, and do poorly in school.

Most experts agree that the earlier you start developing a solid sleep schedule, the easier it is to establish healthy nighttime habits in your children. Here's a parent's guide to creating better bedtimes by age, ranging from the newborn phase to age 11.

Bedtime for Babies: Newborn-1 Year Old

Newborn-3 Months

Newborns sleep about 16 to 17 hours a day. They slip between the waking and sleeping states with little regard for day or night, typically feeding every two to four hours. A more regular sleep cycle begins to emerge around 6 to 8 weeks, in which the baby sleeps more at night and stays awake during the day. Making sure that your infant is exposed to sunlight during the day and kept in a darkened room at night establishes this pattern.

3-4 Months

By 3 or 4 months, babies' sleep cycles begin to vaguely resemble those of adults, passing through cycles of active sleep (REM, or rapid eye movement) and deep sleep. Both stages are critical to development. "We know that the human growth hormone is released during deep sleep, so children require this stage of sleep to grow," notes Paul Saskin, clinical director of the Regional Center for Sleep Disorders at Sunrise Hospital, in Las Vegas. "And it is thought that REM is needed for learning and memory. Like a computer backing up its hard drive, the brain is organizing its filing system."

By 4 months, total sleep decreases to about 15 hours, the longest sleep period (which, with luck, occurs at night) stretches from about four to nine hours, and midmorning and midafternoon naps develop. At this point, parents can start reinforcing their child's biological rhythms by anticipating their baby's natural sleepiness, soothing them, and putting them down to sleep before they get overtired, says Dr. Weissbluth. "Helping your child fall asleep is like surfing: You want to catch the wave of drowsiness as it's rising, before your baby crashes into an overtired state," he explains. A good rule of thumb is to put your baby down to sleep every two hours.

5-7 Months

As their baby approaches 6 months of age, "parents often ask, 'Why is my child still waking up three and four times a night?'" says Mark D. Widome, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, in Hershey. "Instead, they should be asking, 'Why does my child need my help to get back to sleep when he wakes up?'"

Indeed, researchers at McGill University, in Montreal, videotaped a group of infants and found that all woke up an average of four times a night. Many, however, did not call out but managed to soothe themselves back to sleep (the so-called good sleepers). Those described as problem sleepers tended to cry out and make their awakenings known.

"By 5 or 6 months, if a healthy child is waking up at night for feedings, it's a learned behavior," says Dr. Widome. "Don't be so quick to take her out of bed and feed her. If you do, you're not giving her ample opportunity to try to get back to sleep herself." Keep in mind, too, that the more often you put your baby to bed when they're still awake, the more practice they'll get soothing themselves to sleep.

8-12 Months

Some parents are surprised to find that around 8 or 9 months, their baby, who had been sleeping through the night, suddenly begins to wake in the middle of the night and cry for them. "They're at that developmental stage when they are starting to understand object permanence," explains Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy development in the first three years of life. "They are beginning to understand that you exist out there even though they can't see you, so, naturally, they call for you."

Whether your child has regressed or has never quite mastered the skill of going to sleep solo, try choosing a sleep training method that works for your family, and implementing it for your child. Some options include the cry it out method, the fading method, the pick-up, put-down method, and the Ferber method. "Don't start any kind of sleep training until you are committed to following through—if you let your baby cry one night and then go to him the next, it may worsen the problem," says Lerner.

Bedtime for Toddlers: 1-3 Years Old

By 18 months, most babies have given up their morning nap; at 3, some will be ready to give up their afternoon nap as well. At this stage, there is so much excitement in a toddler's life that they can't wind down at night, even when they're exhausted. If you find that your toddler has a cranky period toward the end of the day, it may be a sign that they need to go to sleep earlier. "Well-rested children don't behave like that," notes Dr. Weissbluth.

Children often wind up in your bed at this age as a result of two major developmental milestones: Instead of just crying, they can now actually call out "Mommy" or "Daddy," which is a lot harder to ignore; and the move into a big-kid bed means they don't even need to call—they can just show up at your bedside.

Bedtime for Preschoolers: 3-5 Years Old

Nightmares and night terrors, which usually strike preschoolers, are common causes of night disturbance and resistance to bedtime at this age. "Nightmares are scary to kids, but night terrors are scarier to parents," says Dr. Widome. Children do not even remember having had night terrors, which are a partial arousal from deep sleep usually occurring within the first couple of hours after your child goes to sleep. They might sit up and scream, but they're not awake and not conscious that you're there. Night terrors tend to occur when your child is overtired, according to Dr. Widome. If your kid experiences them repeatedly, taking a very short nap in the late afternoon can reduce fatigue.

Nightmares, on the other hand, tend to be concentrated in the second half of the night during REM sleep. Bad dreams are young children's way of playing out unresolved feelings or experiences, says Claire Lerner. Since they cannot yet distinguish between fantasy and reality, the scary feelings remain. In addition to providing comfort, help your child figure out ways to combat their fears.

Nightmares aside, if your preschooler is still waking up at night, you might want to consider using a system of rewards and consequences. Dr. Weissbluth recommends providing a set of sleep rules (close your eyes; stay quiet; stay in bed; try to sleep). For every night that they follow the sleep rules, the child earns a star. When they accumulate a certain number of stars, they receive a reward. When they don't follow the rules, they lose a privilege the next day.

Bedtime for Kids: 6 to 11 Years Old

Insufficient sleep is the most insidious sleep problem among older children. They're going to sleep later yet waking up at the same time. A growing body of research suggests that sleep deprivation has a significant impact on school behavior and performance. "Instead of becoming quiet and somnolent, as adults do, kids become hyperactive and out of control," says David Gozal, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Sleep Medicine Center at Tulane University Hospital Clinics, in New Orleans. "Their ability to pay attention decreases, as does their ability to concentrate, solve problems, and retain what they learn."

Experts agree that parents must set limits, not only on how late school-age kids can stay up but on what they can do before bedtime. Watching TV, playing computer and video games, and using a phone or iPad are stimulating activities that keep kids' minds working overtime. And a full plate of after-school commitments prevents them from finishing their homework at a reasonable hour. "Families need to make sleep a priority and put it into their schedules," says sleep expert Mary Carskadon, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Sleep should not be a last resort after activities—or energy—run out.

If your child is still having difficulty falling asleep from the start of bedtime, speak with their health care provider about possible factors that are negatively impacting their sleep and possible solutions.

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