1. Preschoolers
  2. Sleep
  3. Understanding sleep

Preschooler sleep: what to expect

3-5 years

Most preschoolers need 11-13 hours of sleep a night, and some still nap during the day. Preschoolers sometimes have sleep problems like nightmares and night terrors or getting out of bed. A consistent bedtime routine is the best way to handle many of these issues.

Preschooler sleep: what you need to know

Children aged 3-5 years need around 11-13 hours of sleep a night. Some might also have a day nap of about an hour.

Sleep is important for your preschooler’s health, growth and development. When children sleep well, they’re more settled and happy during the day. Getting the right amount of sleep also strengthens your child’s immune system and reduces the risk of infection and illness.

Night terrors and nightmares

As your preschooler’s imagination develops, your child might start having nightmares or night terrors. Night terrors tend to happen in the first few hours of sleep when your child is sleeping deeply. Nightmares usually happen between midnight and 4 am.

You manage nightmares and night terrors differently.

With nightmares, your child might wake up, remember the nightmare and feel upset. She’ll need comfort and reassurance – for example, ‘Bad dreams are very scary, aren’t they?’

If your child has night terrors, he won’t wake up or remember later. Waking him up will upset him. Instead, wait for your child to stop thrashing about. Guide him back to bed if he has got out. Children usually settle back to sleep quickly after a night terror.

Bedtime routine

Sleep can sometimes come more slowly for preschoolers because they’re busy thinking about the day even after they go to bed. A positive bedtime routine can help with this, especially if you follow the routine consistently, both during the week and on weekends.

A bedtime routine for preschoolers might look something like this:

  • 6.30 pm: brush teeth, go to toilet, put on night nappy if needed.
  • 6.45 pm: quiet time (read a book, tell a story, sing a song, have a cuddle).
  • 7 pm: get into bed and kiss goodnight.

Most preschoolers are ready for bed around 7 pm, especially if they’ve had a big day at preschool. But some can demand more and more bedtime stories as a delaying tactic. You might want to establish a two or three book rule for bedtime, with the promise to read more during the day.

If your child takes a dummy to bed, you might consider encouraging her to let go of the dummy around this time.

Getting up after bedtime

Your preschooler might go through a stage of calling out from bed or getting up after you’ve said goodnight. Try these tips:

  • Avoid boisterous play as well as watching TV and using computers, smart phones or tablets close to bedtime. These activities can make it harder for your child to settle.
  • Establish a consistent, calming bedtime routine.
  • Make sure your child’s room is cool, quiet and dark.
  • Before leaving the room, check that your child has everything he needs for sleep, such as his favourite cuddly toy or blanket. Remind him to stay quietly in bed.
  • Try not to go in to your child if she calls after you’ve turned the light out. If you do, she might try the same thing again next bedtime.
  • If your child gets out of bed, calmly ask him to go back to bed. Say that you’re just in the other room. Repeat this firmly and quietly over and over until your child doesn’t get up again.

Sometimes your child might actually need something. If your child is scared of a monster under the bed, quickly check and tell your child there are no monsters. Your child might settle after this. If your child is scared of the dark, think about using a night-light.

If your child is having sleep problems, it’s usually best to deal with them using behaviour strategies like bedtime routines. Sleep medications aren’t usually the solution to children’s sleep problems. 

Night-time wetting

Even if your child uses the toilet or potty during the day, she might still wet at night.

Often, children are 3-4 years of age before they’re dry at night, and some children don’t have dry nights until 6-7 years.

Putting a night-light on and a potty in your child’s room might prompt your child to wee there during the night. Let your child know that you’ll help if he needs it. You can also get night-time nappies or pull-ups for older children.

Most children grow out of night-time wetting by themselves. But if you’re concerned about your child’s night-time wetting, talk to your GP.

Sleep and children with autism spectrum disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, just like other children. But they can also have different or more severe sleep problems like sleeping at irregular times, sleeping less than expected for their age, getting up in the night or being very sleepy in the day.

You can deal with sleep difficulties in children with ASD by using behaviour strategies and encouraging healthy sleep habits.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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