Sleep and your child: zero to six years

Sleep at three to six years

Three to six-year-old children need about 10 to 12 hours sleep each night. 

They might go to sleep at 6.30pm and wake early, or stay up later and wake later. They might still need a daytime sleep.

Settling your child

Try the following ideas to encourage sleep time for your child:

  • work out a night time pattern that is special for you and your child - eg: a bath, drink, brush teeth, cuddle, story, song and kiss goodnight
  • let them know in advance that bedtime is coming - eg: ‘just one more game and then it’s time to get ready for bed’, and mean what you say
  • no excitement such as tickles, wrestles or TV for the half-hour before bed
  • allow time to sit and talk about the events of the day
  • if your child has had a stressful day or something is worrying them, they may need some extra time and quiet attention - eg: reassuring words, a longer cuddle or relaxing music.

If your child wakes at night

Night waking is common in these years and there is no ‘right way’ to solve it.

Your child might still wake and need your help to go back to sleep if:

  • they are still developing the confidence to feel secure when you are not there - this will probably improve after about four years of age
  • there are changes in their life - such as moving house, separations, family tension, starting preschool
  • they feel sick, lonely, sad or frightened.

Sometimes doing whatever works for you as a family is good enough.

Some children can resettle themselves - others may need comforting.

What you can do

Try to settle your child where they will be sleeping the night, so you don’t have to move them.

If they wake, go to them and quietly reassure them that everything is all right.

Say something like ‘Sleep time now - love you’, and then walk out of the room.

If your child remains unsettled, you could try some of the ideas below:

  • if they come into your room, lead them back to bed, and resettle them there
  • put a spare bed in their room so you can be comfortable and rest while your child needs you close by
  • allow them to come into your bed if they wake early in the morning, or have a small mattress or sleeping bag for them next to your bed
  • be comforting, but boring - don’t respond to any games
  • ask your child what would help them go to sleep - they may be able to tell you
  • think about any changes happening in your child’s life that can cause stress - they might seem minor to you, but can be big for your child.

Going to bed problems

Sometimes parents find it hard to get young children to go to bed, or their early waking causes problems.

Children usually wake when they have had enough sleep, so early waking may be because of an early bedtime.

In some cultures children sleep in or near other family activities, and can nap whenever they feel tired - so this is not a problem.

However many parents are often tired at the end of the day and need time to themselves, or need extra sleep in the morning - more than their child does.

Sometimes your child may not want to go to bed because they:

  • don’t want to leave interesting people or things happening
  • they are frightened of being left alone, no matter what time you put them to bed
  • they are not tired yet, but might go to bed happily later
  • have had a busy or exciting day
  • have had too much excitement just before bedtime
  • lack a night-time routine to help them wind down
  • are affected by daylight saving - it looks and feels too early.

It can help to try to understand why your child does not want to go to bed.

It could be a one-off situation, such as visitors and excitement, or it may mean you need a different routine to help them settle before bed.

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Last updated: 11 March 2016

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