Understanding the science behind children’s sleep
Sleeping is such an important topic for us all, particularly children’s sleep. A healthy sleep pattern sets us all up for a successful day. At different ages and stages of your child’s life they are learning new things in all aspects of their lives including sleep and rest.
Did you know sleep is a learned skill?
We as adults are responsible for guiding their learning and adjusting our expectations and actions around many aspects of their development, particularly around sleep. But first we need to be aware of the importance of sleep and how sleep is different during each age and phase of our children’s lives.
This article covers
Understanding the science behind children’s sleep
What are the sleep needs in each age group?
Sleep for babies until 2 years old
Sleep for Toddlers aged 2-3 years
Sleep for Kindy children aged three to five years old
How are we set up at Kids College childcare for good sleep patterns and routines?
This article is designed to be read in conjunction with our ‘Sleep coaching your child is the key to everyone getting a good night’s sleep’ article on our Kids College website.
Sleep spindles in midday naps enhance learning in preschool children
Here we see evidence that classroom naps support learning in preschool children by enhancing memories acquired earlier in the day compared with equivalent intervals spent awake. This nap benefit is greatest for children who nap habitually, regardless of age. Performance losses when nap-deprived are not recovered during subsequent overnight sleep. Physiological recordings of naps support a role of sleep spindles in memory performance. These results suggest that distributed sleep is critical in early learning; when short-term memory stores are limited, memory consolidation must take place frequently.
Science proves children are growing while they are asleep
We’ve all heard about the growth-spurting babies and toddlers whose stomachs seem like bottomless pits—especially considering how small those stomachs really are!
But when little ones go through periods of rapid growth, they need more than just extra food. They need extra sleep too. A lot of their growth is happening while they’re in dreamland, so depriving them of that time impacts them physically as much as mentally. Naps are important parts of the day and it has been proven that a daytime sleeper is usually a better nighttime sleeper.
Science proves children are learning emotional regulation during nap time
A missed nap or two may not seem like a big deal to friends and caregivers who see the child for an hour and then leave. But talk to the parents later that evening or the next day—when they’re dealing with extra fussiness, whining, and tantrum-throwing—and it’s a different story.
Research backs up the case for this fatigue-induced crankiness. One study conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder examined toddlers as they were completing puzzles. When they missed their regular 90-minute nap, showed a 31 percent increase in negative emotional responses when they weren’t able to complete an especially difficult puzzle. They also showed a 34 percent decrease in positive emotional responses after completing an easier one.
In other words, without a nap, their negative emotions were heightened, while their positive ones were dulled.
As explained by sleep scientist Dr. Monique LeBourgeouis, “Sleepy children are not able to cope with day-to-day challenges in their worlds.”
Science proves children who nap learn more effectively
The amount of cognitive development that happens while babies and toddlers nap is pretty incredible. Most recently, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that infants demonstrated higher levels of learning and memory the day after being taught if they took a long nap right after the information was presented.
Here’s the key: All the infants rested soundly during the night, but only the ones who had also napped during the day remembered what they had learned twenty-four hours later.
Considering the lengths to which we parents often go to ensure our children are smarty pants—you know, playing them Mozart while they’re in the womb, counting our intake of omega-3s while breastfeeding, and helping them practice their ABCs over and over again—making sure they get their nap time seems like a pretty simple way to foster the development of their precious brains.
Science proves a daytime sleeper is usually a better nighttime sleeper
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t prioritize their children’s naps because ditching the daytime snooze sessions helps their babies and toddlers sleep better at night.
But that’s not actually the case.
According to the St Louis Children’s Hospital skipping naps usually leads to a child that is overtired by bedtime. And while you’d think an overtired kid will fall asleep quickly and easily, the opposite is often true: They start acting stressed, irritable, and wired, making bedtime more of a battle.
The only time napping seems to interfere with nighttime sleep is when it occurs in the late evening (no surprise there—it’s tough to nap at 5:30pm and still go to bed by 8pm!). But other than that, daytime naps actually facilitate better nighttime sleep.
Of course, this isn’t to say that parents who bypass naps every now and then are somehow robbing their little ones of the ability to learn, grow, emotionally engage, and sleep soundly at night. It just means that, when possible, napping should be prioritized—for the sake of parent and child alike.
Sleep cycles REM and Non-REM
To understand how to help our children to sleep we need to be aware that we all go in and out of different types of sleep as we are resting. It may appear as a big chunk of sleep, but sleep is actually separated into a few different stages.
When we sleep we go through sleep cycles. The process of becoming drowsy, falling sleep and moving into deep sleep then back to light sleep is called a sleep cycle.
Each sleep cycle consists of the following two types of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM)
REM sleep is known as active or dream sleep. REM sleep is associated with processing and storing information and is linked to memory and learning. During REM sleep children are practicing what they have learnt and are wiring the pathways in their brains. Children can do strange things while sleeping, they may crawl, make sounds, talk or sing and even grizzle. These behaviours are typical of REM sleep and they are actually still asleep.
Non-REM sleep is a quiet and relaxed sleep stage. During Non-REM sleep there is little movement, breathing is deep and heart rate is slow as the brain is processing and consolidating new skills and establishing brain pathways.
As we sleep, we go into and out of REM and Non-REM sleep during our sleep cycles. An adults and child’s sleep cycle is quite different and it is worth understanding the time frames of how these cycles work so you can make an informed decision on whether your child is ready to get up or whether they need to settle back down for more sleep. An adult sleep cycle is around 90 minutes and a child’s sleep cycle is around 45-60 minutes.
We see these sleep cycles when you help your child to fall asleep, you wait till they are seemingly comfortable and step away and not a few minutes later they wake up. This is the moment to decide whether they are ready to wake up or are they need to go back to sleep. The magic is in teaching them the ability to self soothe back to sleep as they surface a bit between the sleep cycles.
A key difference between adults and child sleep is that if something wakes up an adult during the night, the problem may usually be solved with the adult deciding what to do next. Children find it much more difficult to self-settle back to sleep and need help to learning these skills. This is why sleep routines and sleep associations are so important for them to learn
Babies are born without a night and day rhythm and don’t realize that everyone else sleeps at night. They learn to sleep at night by being exposed to light and dark. The development of this day and night circadian rhythm develops after the child is four months old and is affected by environmental factors.
To help your child develop their night and day rhythm you can:-
- Offer regular feeding patters during the day
- Using dim light or darkness to enhance secretion of melatonin, a hormone released in darkness, which produces sleep
- Expose your child to indirect sunlight particularly in the late afternoon
- Establish a bedtime routine and sleep associations
- Decrease stimulation before sleep time
- Avoid stimulation by minimaxing eye and voice contact during the night
- Keep a calm quiet environment before bedtime
To set the ideal environment for sleep we need to establish sleep associations to allow your child to recognise and settle down at sleep time. Sleep habits – also known as sleep associations – describe certain conditions that need to be present in order for your baby to fall asleep. These include the sleep routines and comfort items such as blanket, teddies, dummies or thumb sucking. Even as adults we have a relaxing routine as we go to bed.
Once your baby has passed three months old, they now have the ability to store memories and bedtime routines and sleep associations become very important.
Comfort items for sleep associations
The comfort items your child chooses to make special helps them learn to self-settle leading to a good sleep as you gradually do less and allow your child to develop the skills of self-settling to sleep.
Ensure the object is safe, easy to clean and is not too big or too small. Definitely buy more of these items once your child has a favorite as you don’t want to loose that all important item. Another great tip is to rotate the spares so that each of them feels and smells the same.
Comfort aids are normal and your child will grow out of it as they are ready to. Children can grow very attached to comfort items and just be aware to use them mostly during sleep times or times of distress to comfort your child whilst setting up sleep associations that allow a child to develop their ability to self soothe. Allow them the opportunity to take comfort when they need it along the way to learning to self soothe. Fluffy bunny will not be with them as they walk down the aisle to get married.
Sleep patterns and routines as sleep associations
A sleep pattern is a predictable habit, ritual or practice. It is crucial to have predictable routines around sleep habits, and food to help promote your child’s wellbeing. Each family will develop their own ways that work for them. A sleep routine usually consists of a period of quiet time that allows your child to associate this as rest time and prepares them for sleep time.
Suggestions for setting a sleep routine:-
- Quiet time to reset their energy levels and calm them down
- Time with a you or your partner and a big cuddle
- Bath time at night
- Dressing for bed, night time pajamas and during day sleeps a sleeping grow bag can be helpful
- Comfort items like blankets, dummies or teddies
- Quiet safe sleeping area, bed or cot away from the main action of the household to ensure less stimulation
- Gentle stretches or yoga
- A little massage routine
- Holding, stroking or placing a firm but gentle hand across their body
- Telling a story or playing a story CD
Singing a lullaby or playing soft music can help set the relaxing mood.
Understanding fussing and crying
What happens when your child cries? Understanding why your child cries and what the crying means may be one of the most difficult challenges especially with very young babies. It is normal for children and babies to cry and knowing what your child is trying to tell you through their crying helps you to decide what they need.
Crying is different to the general fussing that young babies do when they are settling to sleep or adjusting to different circumstances. High pitched sudden onset cries are urgent cries that need your attention quickly.
A low-toned and intermittent grizzle may signal they are attempting to settle to sleep and need a chance to do that themselves or with minimal adult input.
In reality working out what your children needs when you are worried or anxious is hard. Each child has a different temperament and you will get to know your child’s cries as they develop.
No discussion on crying could be complete without mentioning the issue of colic. Colic babies are classified as babies who cry more than others. There is no single explanation for what causes colic or how it is best treated. If you are worried please do contact sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep (Non-REM).
Dunstan Baby language
A fantastic resource to learn about the different types of cries is called Dunstan Baby Language developed by Priscilla Dunstan. Before Priscilla Dunstan, nobody understood that the vocal reflexes of all healthy newborn babies naturally produce 5 pre-cry sounds, each of which clearly identify a specific infant need. For more information go to
Signs that your child may need more sleep
Signs that your child may need more sleep during the night or more nap time in the day Ask yourself these questions
Does my child act sleepy during the day?
Does my child get cranky and irritable in the late afternoon?
Is my child in attentive impatient hyperactive or aggressive?
Does my child have trouble focusing on school work or other tasks question?
How Kids College are ensuring everyone gets what they need during rest and sleep times
Our sleep and rest policies are based around science of sleeping and what research tells us children need from us at this age. Jennifer heads up the team and is qualified in sleep training from Ngala. Training and advice for families is available on our website.
Sleep and rest time is just about the most important part of their day. These very young children are learning and literally growing neural pathways in their brains each and every moment of the day and they do require a breather where they recharge their batteries and process all that learning. An effective rest time is a very real necessity in keeping children healthy.
We support nap times in day to ensure children have a good day and to prevent children from experiencing daytime sleepiness, which is often manifested by increased activity, aggressive behaviour, impulsivity, acting-out behaviour, poor concentration, and inattention.
We support nap times to directly ensure a good night’s rest at bedtime. Well rested children settle quicker at night than overtired ones, over tired children are unable to self soothe at bedtime and are more likely to wake up through the night. The key to good sleep at night is having melatonin in our bodies, melatonin is directly produced through our levels of serotonin. We need serotonin to produce melatonin, and we need melatonin to fall asleep at night. We produce the most serotonin while we are asleep. Therefore, the more we sleep the more serotonin is released into our bodies to produce that much needed melatonin.
Being at childcare is very different to being at home and their needs during their days with would be different. We have a very busy morning full of various activities, a calming down mat session to settle their systems, and a home-made healthy meal, children do usually get sleepier than they generally do at home. They then get the opportunity to get the rest they need. Those who need to rest are welcome to and those that need to sleep are welcome to. Children who usually rest and do not need sleep are offered quiet activities. We only ask that they do not disturb anyone else.
In the case that it is a parents request their child does not sleep we will try to keep to that, but if in that moment we are unable to keep them awake, if they are simply too tired and do fall asleep, we will leave them to get the rest their bodies are demanding of them, for normally around half an hour and then we will try rouse them again. Rest assured we do not routinely have children sleeping after 1:30pm.
Each child’s sleep and rest times are communicated to families each day, so you know what has occurred that day.
To ensure children are school ready in every aspect teaching them how to take a breather is needed for the first two years when they start big school. Even when children start school, they have a designated rest time where children are quiet and restful. Kindy children and preschool children are still offered a rest in the day, it is only in Year 1 of school when they turn 6 that rest times are no longer offered.
What are the sleep needs in each age group?
Listening to your babies cries, looking for tired signs and understanding that each age has specific sleep challenges that may develop affords us the ability to help our children learn to sleep no matter what their age. A good understanding of sleeping ranges and patterns helps us along our way.
Sleep for babies until 2 years old
Sleep is important for healthy brain development, a healthy immune system and it improves our problem solving skills. Babies who sleep and eat well are often happier, more content and less irritable.
Tired signs in babies?
- close their fists
- rub their eyes
- use jerky arm and leg movements
- have a worried facial expression
- arch backwards
- have difficulty focusing or go cross-eyed
- suck fingers as a way of self-soothing to sleep
Overtired babies are more difficult to get to sleep. As a general guide:
- Newborns to 3 month old babies are likely to be overtired after 1 to 1.5 hours of awake time and need around 15-18 hours of sleep time
- A 3 – 6 month old baby will be overtired after 1.5 to 2.5 hours of awake time and needs 15-16 hours of sleep time
- A 6 – 12 month old baby will be overtired after 2 to 3 hours of awake time and needs 13-14 hours of sleep time.
Possible sleep challenges as your baby gets older
Sleep patterns change as your baby gets older and develops. Many parents are upset to find that their child – who previously slept for long periods – suddenly starts waking or becomes clingy and prone to periods of crying. This phase of clinginess is known as ‘separation anxiety’ or separation awareness and can occur in babies aged 6 to 12 months of age. At this stage of your baby’s brain development, they do not understand that you will come back so may become upset when you leave. This can add a challenge to the sleep routine but it is important to remember that it is a normal stage of development and will pass
Sleep for Toddlers aged 2-3 years
Sleep is essential for a healthy child. A well-rested child is an active and contented child who concentrates and learns better. This can be supported through developing healthy patterns in the early years, including consistent bedtime and wake up times, as well as calming bedtime routines.
Tired signs in toddlers
- have any of the above signs of tiredness
- pull at ears
- have clumsy behaviour
- have clingy behaviour
- need or demand more attention
- be fussy while feeding and eating
How much sleep does my toddler need?
Every child is different and there is a big range of what is considered adequate sleep. Their behaviour will be a safe guide for you. A toddler with adequate sleep will be happy, active and playful.
Watch for your toddler’s tired signs: rubbing eyes, being irritable, or becoming clumsy if walking.
On average, most children will fall into the following range.
- Average 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep, including naps, with consistent sleep and wake-up times
- After about 3½ – 4 hours of being awake, a one year old will be ready for a morning sleep
- They will usually be ready for bed between 6.30pm to 7.30pm, depending on your individual household
Remember your toddler is still learning and growing. They need routine and for you to be reassuring and warm, while at the same time, consistent and firm.
Daytime naps for toddlers
- By around 18 months of age, your child may need only one day sleep, particularly if they can happily stay awake for a four hour stretch. Their behaviour during the morning will be your guide on how many sleeps are needed
- As your child moves to one day sleep, offer an early lunch to fit in sleep in the middle of the day. Day sleeps that are too close to your toddler’s nightly bed time may make it harder for them to settle.
Possible sleep challenges as your toddler gets older
It is at the toddler stage that some children experience periods of sleep difficulty for the first time in their life. This is common as toddlers are learning to make choices and assert independence and may use sleep time as an opportunity to say “no”. Sometimes they will flatly refuse to go to bed.
Preparing your toddler for the transition to bedtime may help. Some parents give advance warning and practice a bedtime ritual, one that follows a set sequence such as having a bath, putting on their pyjamas, brushing teeth and reading a book. This helps toddlers learn sleep time always follows this routine.
Toddlers may have a range of strong emotions throughout the day, including at bedtime. Their magical imaginations may lead to real or learned behaviours that show up as fear. Reassure and support them. This stage will pass as they grow.
Separation awareness is a normal developmental stage at – – 12 months and peaks at around 18 to 24 months of age. This is when babies are still developing object permanence and don’t realise something exists even though it cacqnnot necessarily be seen. At this stage you may find your toddler reluctant to be apart from you. Some may want to sleep with their parents.
Sleep for Kindy children aged three to five years
Getting enough sleep is important for Kindy children that supports their brain development and learning that is happening during this stage of growth. Most children are now in an early learning or Kindy school environment. This may mean they are learning how to be apart from their parents, socialise with other children, learning new rules and are taking direction from adults that are not known to them. A well-rested child will be more likely to manage a new environment with enough energy and concentration to learn and to enjoy these new experiences.
A tired Kindy child may:
- Same tired signs as younger children, rubbing eyes, yawning, crying
- Become clumsy
- Be more uncooperative
- Becoming quickly frustrated
- Frequent temper tantrums
- Become fussy with food
- Have increased activity and display over tired signals
How much sleep does my Kindy need?
Every child is different and there is a big range of what is considered adequate sleep. On average, they need an average of 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep a day. They will usually be ready for bed between 6.30pm and 7.30pm, depending on your individual household. Most Kindy children do still need an afternoon nap. Their behaviour will be a safe guide for you. A child with adequate sleep will be happy, active and playful at home and at Kindy. Watch for tired signs, like rubbing eyes or being irritable and emotional. Remember your child is still learning and growing. They need routine and for you to be reassuring and warm while, at the same time being consistent and firm
Possible sleep challenges as your Kindy child gets older
Due to higher levels of stimulation and separation from parents in the day, some children will experience periods of sleep difficulty. This may be either finding it hard to get to sleep or waking during the night. ‘Switching off’ from their day may prove difficult for some children. They may require some additional support to learn to still their mind and to relax. If your child is getting out of bed during the night, be calm and consistent with how you support your child to resettle.
Some children will experience nightmares and night terrors at this development stage as their imaginations are further developed and stimulated throughout the day. Reassure and support them. This stage will pass as they grow.
Supporting your Kindy child’s transition to sleep at night
They will need support from their parents at the end of the day, to unwind from their busy day, to talk about and process what they have been doing, to refuel with a healthy snack, and to reconnect with their parents through cuddles and attention. This can be tricky in many families where there are meals to be cooked, chores, homework and bathing to be done, where all in the household are tired and needing to de-stress from the day. Consistent bed and wake times and calming bedtime routines are key. Limit or avoid screen time and encourage less stimulating play as bedtime draws near. Just as with toddlers, this is part of assisting to ‘transition’ to bedtime.
Some ideas that can help:
- Give warnings when bedtime is near
- Practise a bedtime routines and associations that follows a set sequence such as having a bath, putting on pyjamas, brushing teeth and reading a book.
Importance of relaxation time for transitions to big school
We meet with schools in our area, particularly Springfield Primary school to discuss our programs and ensure we are sending children into their journey into big school ready and prepared. One of the overwhelming messages we are asked to instill in our children is teaching children how to self soothe and relax. Our modern children are so used to being entertained all the time and because the teachers at Kindy and preschool level at school also recognize the need for children to rest, they are finding it hard as the children need to have the ability to rest and switch off for a brief time to recharge their batteries for the next part of their days. As we expressly teach other topics like cutting with scissors, using glue sticks, and washing your hands, we need to recognize the importance of teaching children how to relax and expect to be entertained all the time.
For what to do when sleep becomes an issue for your child please see our article entitled
‘Sleep coaching your child is the key to everyone getting a good night’s sleep’ on our Kids College website.
The information for this article was sourced from the following resources
Any conversation about sleep needs to address safety issues. Please see our articles on safe sleeping which covers the Red Nose organisation SUDI recommendations.
‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ and Kids College values our partnership with parents and takes pride in our position as our children’s home away from home, ensuring our families and children build a strong sense of belonging to the kids College family.
‘We value our collaborative partnerships with professional, community and research organisations and enjoy playing an active role in shaping the future of early childhood education.’
National Quality Standards
2.1.1. Wellbeing and comfort. Each child’s wellbeing and comfort is provided for, including appropriate opportunities to meet each child’s need for sleep, rest and relaxation.
6.1.3 Families are supported. Current information is available to families about the service and relevant community services and resources to support parenting and family wellbeing
Kids College family
At Kids College we work each day embedding our values and philosophy into each facet of what we do. We continually improve our practices by critically reflecting and engaging in meaningful relationships with our community and for this we need your support and input. Please let us know if you have any comments, queries or recommendations.
Make sure to follow Kids College Childcare on facebook, watch for our regular emails and keep an eye on our Kids College website. Join our Kids College family community and share in our vision of creating the very best childcare where children experience love, laughter and learning every day. You can reach us on Jennifer@kidscollege.com.au
With love, laughter and learning from your friends in the
‘village it takes to raise a child’
Teacher Jen and the Kids College Childcare family