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As individuals, we all have our own sleep patterns and body rhythms, but when it comes to our ability to fall asleep easily and to stay asleep, our relationships can play a key role.

The issue of sleep (or the lack of it!) is often on the minds of many parents and carers in their children’s early years. And for good reason! Sleep is important to how we function as people and parents, and is essential for healthy child development.

As individuals, we all have our own sleep patterns and body rhythms, but when it comes to whether we can fall asleep easily and stay asleep, our relationships can play a key role. Learning to go to sleep and getting back to sleep is closely linked to what’s called emotion regulation – that is, understanding and managing your feelings.

Babies need more sleep per day than adults, but they are also light sleepers and have shorter sleep cycles. All babies are different and the amount they sleep varies hugely.

  • From birth to 3 months, babies tend to sleep between 14-17 hours a day, including naps. They will wake frequently through the night to be fed and cuddled. This is completely normal and is not something that should try to be prevented.
  • From about 6 months, babies can sleep for longer stretches – some even through the night. But it can also take much longer for babies to sleep for 8-12 hours sleep at a time, with no crying or wakefulness whatsoever.

As babies grow into toddlers, they can explore much more and have more control over where they go and what they do. Yet they are still so dependent on their caregivers. The fear and excitement they feel as a result of being both dependent and separated can impact their sleep.

  • From 12 months, toddlers will need around 12-15 hours sleep a day, mostly at night.
  • Two year olds will tend to sleep for 11-12 hours a night, with 1 or 2 day time naps.
  • Three-four year olds will need around 12 hours sleep, and some may still nap in the day.

Sleep regressions 

Sleep regressions are times when a baby’s sleep patterns change. They tend to last between three to six weeks, but it varies. A baby may wake during the night, have a difficult time getting back to sleep, take shorter naps or skip naps. Changes in sleep are a normal part of a baby’s development and happen when babies are learning new skills. They tend to occur at around 4 months, 8 months and 18 months, but all children are different.

Refusing naps and bedtime struggles 

It’s very common for toddlers to start fighting sleep-time routines, such as naps or going to bed. This is because the world has become a very exciting place for them, and they realise that family life continues once they are in bed! Children usually stop napping any time between the ages of 3 and 5.


Nightmares are common between the ages of 2 and 3, even in loved and well cared for children. The child may wake from a ‘bad dream’ or remember it in the morning. Dreams are an important way for children, like adults, to work out confusing or difficult feelings and experiences. At age two, children do not really understand the difference between fantasy and reality, or between their own feelings and those of others. So, for example, when a child feels angry with their parent or carer, they may assume that the parent is also angry with them. This can lead to an increase in fears, which sometimes get expressed through nightmares, such as monsters under the bed.

Sleep problems affect about 30% of babies and toddlers at least at one point in their early years. But what is a ‘sleep problem’? It can be helpful to think of sleep problems as when a child’s sleeping habits mean they get very upset or are poorly rested, or when their sleeping habits disturb or upset parents. It might be that a baby takes a long time to go back to sleep (say, over an hour) or may wake a lot in the night for no apparent reason.

Possible factors that might be linked with sleep difficulties include:

  • a child’s temperament or nature
  • housing or space problems
  • feeding difficulties
  • the child’s physical health
  • a traumatic birth.

Parents’ mental health and difficulties in their relationship with their baby are also linked to infant sleep difficulties. Parents might find it hard to put their baby down for the night – they might feel guilty for wanting time to themselves, or they may enjoy having a baby who depends on them to be rocked to sleep. They may be anxious that something will happen when they are away from them. This can all impact on how and if the baby learns to self-settle over time.

  • Being a parent of a baby or young child can be very tiring. It’s OK and normal to feel exhausted and fed up with the lack of sleep. It will get easier.
  • All babies and children are different and will need different amounts of sleep
  • Getting enough sleep helps babies and children thrive. Learning how to go to sleep independently is an important skill, like learning to walk. You can start to help your baby learn this skill from around three months old.
  • It takes time for a baby to learn how to go to sleep on their own. Here are some tips to do this in a gentle, loving way:
  • Try not to rush in at the first sounds of your baby being unsettled. Give them a few minutes to see if they can settle themselves first.
  • Rather than picking them up immediately, try other ways of soothing them, like gently reassuring them or stroking them.
  • Try to stay calm, confident and reassuring, as they pick up on your feelings.
  • Have a bedtime routine. Children love routine, and having a bath and reading a book, for example, gives your child time to wind-down ready for sleep. Try and get into a routine when your baby is still small.
  • If your baby has trouble settling themselves, they may be too young to self-soothe. Wait for a few weeks before trying again. Babies and young children will also have more trouble sleeping if they are unwell, teething or in the process of learning a new skill like crawling. 
  • Some babies and young children develop sleep problems, and this can take its toll on a family. If you are feeling exhausted, desperate and overwhelmed, ask for help and advice from a professional you trust, like your health visitor, GP or staff at your children’s centre.