Better sleep for children

Early childhood educators play a crucial role in children’s health, wellbeing and development, and children’s sleep is no exception to this.

Early childhood educators are likely to see firsthand the effect of poor quality sleep on children and families, or hear from families struggling with sleep.

With an understanding of children’s individual sleep needs and proven strategies to support them, educators are in a unique position to help children get the sleep they need to thrive.

Children’s sleep needs are individual

Like other childhood development areas such as walking and talking, children’s sleep needs are individual and change with age. For example, all of us, including children, cycle between deep sleep and light sleep during the night. Deep sleep is particularly important for growth and development whereas light sleep is when we are still and dreaming.

Full-term newborns spend about half of their sleep time in light sleep. By the time children are three that is reduced to around a third, and by age 13, light sleep is about 20 percent.

However, even children of the same age will differ in their sleep, rest and relaxation practices. This can be particularly challenging for early childhood settings supporting children at varying stages of development or struggling with sleep.

When children consistently get poor quality sleep or less sleep than they need, it can have a serious effect on their ability to get the most out of each day.

The good news is that when educators have information that is accessible and that they can use and share with parents, we see improvements in children’s sleep.

How can educators support healthy sleep habits for children?

Early childhood educators and settings can use many strategies to support safe sleep and rest for children while also helping to set children up for lifelong healthy sleep habits.

Children’s sleep needs are individual and not all children will require a nap during the day. Additionally, babies and toddlers get overtired easily. Once they do become overtired, children may find it more challenging to get to sleep.

Helping children and parents to recognise children’s individual sleep cues is an important strategy for supporting better sleep.

Look out for some of the common sleep cues for children:

  • grizzling or crying
  • irritability or grumpiness
  • seeking comfort or attention from adults
  • yawning
  • pulling at ears or rubbing eyes
  • boredom with toys or play.

Other strategies for supporting better sleep for children in early childhood education and care include:

  • a pre-sleep routine that is familiar and calming, and long enough to give children the time they need to fall asleep
  • ensuring sleep environments are consistent with safe sleep practices
  • providing a separate, supervised area for sleep and rest to help children tell the difference between awake time and sleep time, and to minimise distractions
  • maintaining good communication with parents and caregivers so that you know if anything has disturbed their child’s sleep, their daytime nap needs and if these are starting to change
  • letting parents and caregivers know about the rest that their child has had that day at your setting.

Non-sleep specific strategies such as morning sunlight, regular exercise, and a healthy diet can also be helpful for supporting good sleep and rest habits.

Want more tools and support to enhance safe and quality sleep for children?

The Centre for Community Child Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, in partnership with Early Childhood Australia has developed a professional eLearning package.

The eLearning combines evidence-based information on sleep science and individual sleep needs of children, with practical advice on facilitating a safe sleep environment and collaborating with families to build healthy sleep habits.

Understanding sleep eLearning

You can access the Understanding sleep and safe sleep practices in early childhood education and care eLearning at MCRI’s LearnUpon store or ECA’s Learning Hub.

You might also like to subscribe to ECA’s Learning Hub for access to all ECA modules and webinars, including the Understanding sleep eLearning.

The Understanding sleep eLearning package has been developed with the support of the Ian Potter Foundation.

For more information on the eLearning, contact Megan Keyes


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