Getting kids to sleep is one of those things that plagues parents at one time or another—maybe it’s during the newborn phase; maybe your previously dreamy-at-bedtime toddler has decided to party all night; or maybe you have a school-ager who is struggling to catch an adequate amount of zzz’s. No matter the age or stage of your children, sleep is important, and it can cause serious stress when the snoozing isn’t happening. With that in mind, we called up our friend and sleep expert Alanna McGinn of Goodnight Sleep Site to weigh in on list of sleep tips for kids of every age.
Sleep tips for babies and toddlers
- By six months, there should be a fairly consistent sleeping pattern, including two to three naps during the day at predictable times and relatively the same bedtime each night. Bedtimes should be early (possibly earlier than you’d think!); depending on the nap schedule, aim for between 5:30 and 6:30p.m. (You can be flexible based on how well your child has slept in any one day, too—if naps haven’t gone well that day, for example, you can bump bedtime up.)
- Determine a regular bedtime routine, even for babies. Include a bedtime story, song and cuddle and try to repeat the same pattern each night. This serves as a signal that bedtime is next.
- Baths can be great for the bedtime routine, as warm water in a quiet atmosphere can help to relax and soothe, but they won’t work for all kids. Some children end up more excited and wide awake after a bath, so it’s best left for another time in the day. See what works for you and your child.
- Massaging infants or applying lotion to toddlers as a part of the bedtime ritual can promote bonding and relaxation.
- Swaddling may help your infant settle for sleep, but it’s a trial-and-error practice to see if your child likes the feeling (and they will eventually transition out of it). Another option is the use of a sleep sack. Swaddling or getting your kiddo into their sleep sack can both be incorporated into the routine as signals of bedtime.
- Some children are soothed by the sound of a white noise machine. Go with a continuous play machine that runs all night—as opposed to a white noise stuffed animal with a timed shut-off—in order to avoid disrupting your little one’s slumber.
- Don’t rock your baby or pick them up again unless they are very upset. Balance your baby’s need to be comforted with allowing them to learn to soothe themselves.
- Avoid external sleep associations, like nursing to sleep, bouncing or rocking, or using a pacifier; instead, work on teaching your little one to fall asleep on their own. (We know, sometimes it’s easier said than done, but you’re in for more consistent sleep if you can encourage your baby or toddler to fall asleep without help).
Sleep tips for older children
- Set age-appropriate bedtimes and wake times. Stick to this timeline as often as possible. (McGinn recommends the 80/20 Rule—do your best to be consistent 80 percent of the time, and allow yourself to be flexible the remaining 20 percent.)
- Encourage your child to fall asleep independently.
- Avoid bright lights at bedtime and during the night. (This includes light from devices. Keep electronics out of the bedroom, and set a tech curfew to turn screens off at least 15 minutes before settling in to sleep.) Increase light exposure in the morning.
- Maintain a regular daily schedule, including mealtimes.
- Have a consistent, age-appropriate nap schedule. (If you have a kid who can’t seem to keep their eyes open in the afternoon, as sometimes happens when little ones start daycare or kindergarten, it’s tempting to let them have a quick nap. This is okay once in a while, but if it becomes an on-going habit, the better option is to make bedtime earlier.)
- Do your best to make sure that kids get plenty of exercise and time outdoors each day.
- Restrict or eliminate foods and beverages containing caffeine, like chocolate and colas.
Originally published in ParentsCanada, May/June 2012; updated March 2021.