How to Help a Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep


Understanding a Newborn's Sleep Needs

Understanding a newborn's sleep needs is important for parents who want to foster healthy growth and happiness in their baby. Should your newborn be sleeping so much? When, oh, when, will your baby start sleeping through the night? If your toddler resists your attempts to put him down for the night, does it mean you're putting him to bed too early?

Understanding the typical sleep needs and quirks at various ages may help allay some of your worries and help you encourage your child to get the sleep he needs. The chart on the next page shows the average sleep needs of children at various ages to give you some insight. It's important, however, to keep in mind that children are individuals just like adults are. Some children may need more or less than these averages, and the amount of sleep they require at any particular time may be affected by a variety of factors in addition to age, such as growth spurts, changes in routine, illness, and stress.

To broaden your understanding, let's take a look at various stages in childhood and how patterns of sleep and wakefulness change.

Birth to Six Months

In the beginning, most babies sleep most of the time -- and that's what they're supposed to do. Along with eating, sleeping is essential for healthy development. Although some babies sleep only 10 hours a day, and some as many as 23, the average is about 17 hours, equally divided between day and night. What's more, periods of wakefuless and alertness are very brief and irregular at first. By three months of age, babies typically sleep about 15 hours -- 10 at night and 5 during the day. By six months of age, the average is about 14 hours -- 11 during the night and 3 during the day.

However, it is important to remember that there is great variability in sleep patterns among individual babies. So don't be alarmed if your baby is awake and alert more or less than these averages during the early months. Also, keep in mind that babies tire rather easily. Even if your baby is sleeping many hours each night, she may still not be able to go more than a few hours without a nap during the day.

There is no set age at which all babies routinely begin sleeping through the night. At first, sleeping is tied closely to feeding -- babies will tend to fall asleep when they're full and wake up when they're hungry. It isn't until about three to four months of age that being tired generally takes priority over being hungry. It is also at about three or four months that babies can stay awake for relatively longer stretches. They become considerably more active during the day, so they are likely to remain asleep throughout the night. Therefore, although your baby may start sleeping through the night -- or at least for longer stretches at a time -- somewhat earlier or later, you can reasonably expect to see this beginning to happen somewhere between three and four months of age.

Six Months to One Year

During the second half of the first year, the sleep needs and patterns of babies become even more variable. On average, babies tend to sleep about 13 hours a day during this period. The normal range, however, can be anywhere from as few as 9 hours to as many as 18. Typically, babies will sleep approximately 10 to 12 hours during the night and take two naps during the day. The naps may last as little as 20 minutes or as long as a couple of hours. If your baby's sleep needs were on the high end in the first six months, the same will likely be true during the second half of the first year, and vice versa.

You can try to influence your baby's schedule by determining the length of naps and the timing of meals, but usually the baby will sleep when he's sleepy and eat when he's hungry. With babies, the need for longer naps is often associated with a rapid growth spurt. Depending on your child-raising philosophy, you can remain flexible or try to alter the baby's schedule to better fit in with the family's schedule.

If, say, he's going to sleep at night only an hour or so later than you'd like him to, you can probably try to work around his schedule. However, if he's going to sleep two to three hours later than you'd like, you'll probably want to try shortening one of his daily naps. If the baby is sleeping too long at one nap time, you might shorten the next one. He may or may not be cranky the rest of the day. Likewise, he may fall asleep more easily at the preferred bedtime, or he may be overly tired and cry and fuss at you longer. You'll probably have to do a little experimenting.

You might also try to stimulate and play with him more during awake periods; this may help him use up enough energy so that he's tired enough to fall asleep when you want him to. You don't, however, want to overstimulate or excite the baby just before bedtime, since this defeats your purpose. Your baby will need a little quiet time before he can fall asleep.

What to do if your baby wakes you up at night because he's wet and then doesn't want to go back to sleep? Try changing his diaper just before you go to bed; that may help him get through the night. You might also try double-diapering, using plastic pants, or using a disposable diaper with extra absorbency to help him feel more comfortable and allow you both to sleep through the night. Although your baby's skin needs exposure to air to stay healthy, the heavier diapering or use of plastic pants only at night may be OK. You might also try adding a blanket or using a sleeper to keep him warmer; it could be the cold, more than the dampness, that wakes him. When you do change him, be as brief as possible. Let him know it's time for sleeping. If he cries once his diaper has been changed, it's OK. If you allow him to keep you awake just to play, you reinforce his awake time, and he'll expect the same treatment in the future.

On the next page, learn about a child's sleep needs in the second year of life.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.