How to help babies, toddlers sleep through the night


Sleep is on every parent’s mind. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that sleep problems affect 25 to 50 percent of children and 40 percent of adolescents. UC Davis pediatrician Lena van der List comes to the rescue to answer some frequently asked questions to help parents (and their children) sleep through the night.

Bedtime routine is important. It should be soothing and quiet.
Bedtime routine is important. It should be soothing and quiet.

What is a normal amount of sleep for a newborn baby and for an infant? 

  • Newborns average 16-17 hours of sleep per day. They usually sleep for one to four hours at a time. Then they are awake for one to two hours before falling back asleep.
  • At four to six months, infants average about 14 hours of sleep per day.
  • Children ages 1 to 3 years should get about 12 hours per day.

Children gradually need less sleep. By the time they are adolescents, they should get about nine hours of sleep per night.

There’s a range of sleep that individuals need. Every child may not be right on the average. Sleep can be affected by the child’s temperament.

Why is bedtime such a struggle for children?

One of the causes may be separation anxiety, which starts at around eight months of age. At an early age, if children don’t see something or someone because it’s covered up or in the next room, they think it’s actually gone. In psychology, it’s called object permanence.

If the parent puts the child down for sleep and then leaves the room, the child might experience separation anxiety. Then, the child might be so upset that they cry until the parent returns. Sometimes, parents might decide to sleep in the same room, or have the baby fall asleep in their bed, then transfer the child to their crib, but the child needs to learn how to sleep on their own.

How long is a baby’s sleep cycle?

Older children and adults have rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep cycles every 90-110 minutes. But the newborn sleep cycle is about half of that, every 50 minutes. REM sleep is relatively active, and sometimes the baby smiles, sucks, frowns or the arms and legs might twitch a little. At the end of the sleep cycle, sometimes there is a brief arousal. But it’s important to remember that the baby is not actually awakening. Sometimes parents think that this behavior is their baby waking up and then they pick them up and create a real awakening.

Why does my toddler keep delaying bedtime?

This usually occurs in kids around 2 years of age and can be a real problem. The toddler may call for one more of something. One more book read to them. One more glass of water. This can happen when parents are not setting limits. The increased attention that parents pay to the child actually reinforces this behavior. It’s important to be consistent with bedtime rules.

Establish a routine and to stick to it. And then no back-sliding, like rewarding them by responding differently on weekends, for example, because this will just spill over into the next week.

What are some tips to help my child sleep? 

  • The bedroom should be dark and quiet.
  • Give your child a consistent blanket, stuffed animal or favorite toy. The transitional object can really be reassuring to children as they go through the separation anxiety phase because they are comforted by it. But have multiples of every transitional object, in case one needs to get cleaned or becomes lost. These need to be exactly the same.
  • Routine is important. It should be soothing and quiet. Some examples include reading a book, singing a quiet song, praying, tucking the child in and kissing the child goodnight. For most families, that will take less than 30 minutes, but the routine is different for every family.

What if my child’s sleep problems aren’t getting better?

Parents should talk with their pediatrician. Most pediatricians have a lot of experience in this area.

What if there are still problems despite talking with the pediatrician? Should my child see a sleep specialist? Or should I give my child a sleep medication?

Check with your pediatrician regarding any sleeping medication. Seeing a specialist is a good idea to consider in some difficult cases. Some of these issues relate to behavior and parent-child interaction. A pediatrician specializing in child development might be the next step. Also, there are pediatric sleep medicine specialists who might be a helpful resource.

Find more sleep tips for kids on our sleep page.

Additional resources