What Are Healthy Sleep Habits For Children?

picture of a mom holding her baby and the baby is resting their head on their mom's shoulder for an article about healthy sleep habits for children
Christine Brown

Christine Brown

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you have likely heard us talk about healthy sleep habits for children. While we talk a lot about it, I think it makes sense that we dive into what is considered healthy sleep habits for babies, toddler and big kids. Plus, what we can do to help promote these habits with our little ones.

Strategies To Develop Healthy Sleep Habits

Healthy Sleep Habit #1: Follow Your Child’s Cues

Most little ones have tells that they are tired and are ready for sleep. As parents, we have to identify what our child’s cues are so we can be responsive in putting them down for sleep at the right time. If we miss their cues, we run the risk of our child becoming overtired.

Some babies and toddlers are great actors/actresses and cues are harder to read, but if we pay close enough attention, we will usually see one or more of the following cues:

  • yawning,
  • rubbing eyes
  • pulling on ears
  • turning head side to side, like “no”
  • spacing out
  • slowing down
  • stopping play

Catching these cues is important because when children become overtired, the body goes into a state of fight or flight. When this happens, stimulating hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline are released. As you may have seen, when our little ones go down overtired, our babies and toddler can have:

  • More difficulty settling to sleep
  • Restless sleep
  • Frequent night wakings
  • Shorter naps
  • Earlier morning wake ups

Healthy Sleep Habit #2: Consistent Soothing Routine

Everyone preaches for a consistent soothing routine and with good reason! Children really love consistency and a soothing bedtime routine is a powerful cue for your little one that sleepy time is coming.

The goal is to do a consistent set of activities that relax your little one and give you a chance to connect before saying good night. An ideal bedtime routine can look like:

The 4 Bs of The Bedtime Routine

  • Breast or Bottle Feeding
  • Bath
  • Books, songs and cuddling
  • Bed – down, tired but awake

Healthy Sleep Habit #3: Consistent Sleep Environment

Your child will sleep best if they have a consistent sleep environment, like a crib or bassinet. Going into a consistent sleep space is a powerful cue for your little one that it is time to sleep.

Ensure that the sleep space is cool, dark and you are playing white noise continuously for the entire sleep period. You can see all of our favorite products to create the ideal sleep environment here. (affiliate link)

Healthy Sleep Habit #4: Ability to Self-Settle

For most children, if they don’t know how to put themselves to sleep and rely on their parents to do this for them, it will severely impact their ability to have healthy sleep habits.

Here’s the thing…

Whatever conditions children fall asleep with are the same conditions that they expect when they wake up. And we all wake up. No one sleeps through the night. To learn more about this, check out this article.

If your child has sleep associations, like nursing/bottle to sleep, rocking, bouncing, holding, replacing the pacifier, reactive co-sleeping or any combination of these activities, when they wake, they will want you to come in and replicate the same thing that you did at bedtime. This can create short naps and lots of night wakings, both of which will result in your little one being overtired!

When little ones have self-settling skills, when they come to a brief arousal, they scan their environment, say “I’m still tired” and go back to sleep, unless they have a need.

So it is imperative that we put our child down tired, but awake and allow them to put themselves to sleep. We’ve got to move away from sleep associations. I know I just made this sound so easy and your little one may have other feelings about this type of change. Many families need to do some sort of sleep training to allow their child the opportunity to learn these new skills.

Healthy Sleep Habit #5: Respecting Circadian Rhythms

As parents, we oftentimes want our babies to fit into our lives. We want our little one to be flexible and to sleep anywhere, when they are tired. But for many children, this just isn’t realistic.

Children need us to set their schedule up to provide sleep when their body needs it.

For newborns, their circadian rhythms aren’t developed so we use awake windows for this. Most newborns can only handle between 45-90 minutes of awake time before they get over tired.

For babies and toddlers, it is important to have them on a consistent nap time schedule that aligns with when their body needs to sleep. This will result in the best quality, most restorative sleep.

Healthy Sleep Habit #6: Meeting Sleep Needs

As adults, we need somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. But our little ones need way more sleep!

Ensuring that a baby, toddler, or child is receiving the appropriate amount of consolidated day and night sleep will keep them well-rested, and a well-rested child is a happy child!  

Check out this post to determine how much sleep your child needs based on their age.

Healthy Sleep Habit #7: Flexible Bedtime

While our little ones need a consistent daytime schedule to get the best quality sleep, at bedtime we need to be more flexible.

The average bedtime for babies, toddlers and big kids is somewhere in between 6:00-7:30 pm. But if your little had a short nap day, slept on the go or they had an especially active day, they will benefit from having an earlier bedtime.

An early bedtime can be your BFF and it can improve your little one’s ability to get quality sleep. As we chatted about in Tip #1, we want to move bedtime earlier so we can prevent your little one from going down overtired and any lost day sleep can be made up at the beginning of the night when sleep is super restorative.

Has reading through this list left you with lots of questions, especially the question, “how the heck can I teach my child healthy sleep habits? We’d love to help you answer ALL of your questions. Schedule a discovery call with one of our certified sleep consultants to learn about working together to create healthy sleep habits!

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