Sleep: Helping your child fall asleep

Sleep: Helping your child fall asleep
Tips to help your child fall asleep more quickly and easily at night

There are many reasons why your child may not fall asleep quickly and easily at night. Some, such as issues related to your child’s developmental stage or a physical problem, are out of your control. But others can be addressed by changing certain factors related to your family’s routine.

If your child is under 12 months old, consult our fact sheet on babies and sleep.

Why children have trouble sleeping or refuse to go to sleep

If your child is slow to fall asleep or doesn’t want to go to bed, the first thing you should do is think about what might be interfering with their sleep, particularly if your family routine isn’t conducive to sleep. Here are some possible explanations:

  • Your child’s bedtime needs to be adjusted.
  • Your child has developed a habit of refusing to go to bed or fall asleep, and it may even have become a game to them.
  • Activities earlier in the day are disrupting their sleep schedule. For example, maybe they aren’t getting enough physical activity and exposure to daylight, are eating too close to bedtime, or are getting too much screen time (e.g., TV, tablet, cellphone, video games), especially at night.
  • Your child isn’t getting enough attention during the day.
  • Your child doesn’t have a consistent evening routine. Having a predictable bedtime routine is comforting to children and helps them feel secure and ready for bed.

Other factors

Other factors may also be at play:

  • A physical issue (e.g., teething, fever, nasal congestion, digestive issues, respiratory issues such as sleep apnea)
  • Emotions caused by a developmental phase (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of monsters under the bed)
  • A change in their daily routine or a stressful event (e.g., the holiday season, parental separation, moving, going back to daycare after vacation)

What can you do during the day to help your child fall asleep at night?

To help your child fall asleep, build nighttime as well as daytime habits that promote sleep. Changing certain behaviours during the day can be beneficial, as your child’s sleep is also influenced by what happens earlier in the day.

Try your best to stick to a routine

Having points of reference helps little kids mark the passage of time, as they don’t fully understand the concept of time yet.

Without being too strict about doing things at the exact same time every day, try to give your child reference points so that they know what to expect. Describe the day’s activities in the order that they will happen, for example: “Today you’re going to have fun with your friends at daycare. I’ll come get you after snack time.”

At the end of the day, also let your child know how the evening will go by trying to do the same activities in the same order every day. For example, you can play with them for a little while before and after dinner, give them unstructured playtime, and then give them a bath before starting their bedtime routine.

In addition, you should try to have a few consistent habits on weekends and days off, such as going outside in the morning and having a snack after nap time.

These cues increase your child’s sense of security, which promotes sleep.

Encourage daily physical activity and limit screen time

Enfant qui joue dehors au parc

To sleep well, your child needs to move. A child who isn’t active enough during the day may have trouble falling asleep at night because they aren’t tired enough.

Take your child outside to play during the day as much as possible. Natural light helps kids regulate their sleep schedules.

Also, limit screen time (television, tablet, cellphone, computer) during the day in order to make more time for other things, such as physical activity. Studies have shown that too much screen time is detrimental to sleep. What’s more, you should aim to avoid screen time at least one hour before bed.

Meeting your child’s need for attention

After spending all day at daycare, kids need to spend time with their parents to refuel their “emotional tank.” The same is true when they are sick or going through certain phases of development. When their need for attention goes unmet, they may put off going to sleep.

Get into the habit of meeting your little one’s need for attention before their bedtime routine, not during it. Otherwise, they may try to drag it out to spend more time with you and, as a result, take longer to fall asleep.

To fill up your child’s emotional tank, give them your full attention during a specific time at the end of the day. For example, take time to play with your child one-on-one, without distractions, when you get back from daycare or after dinner.

The attention you give your child is also essential to their self-confidence, which in turn impacts sleep. In general, self-confident children have an easier time falling asleep on their own and regulating their emotions so they can calm down before falling asleep.

Take a comforting and positive attitude toward sleep

Sleep is beneficial and important for our health, just like a healthy diet and regular physical activity. It isn’t too early to start teaching this to your child.

Explain that getting a good night’s sleep will help them have a good day and learn lots of things. You can also tell them that their body and mind rest when they’re asleep. Sleeping helps them sort through what they’ve learned and refuel so they can play and learn again the next day.

Talk positively about sleep with your child. Over time, they will start to view sleep as something enjoyable and essential. Here are some examples of how to talk to your child about sleep:

  • “It feels good to get some rest. I like sleeping because [blank]. Why do you like sleeping?”
  • “Sleeping recharges your batteries and helps you grow big and strong and run fast.”
  • “You can have all kinds of crazy dreams when you’re asleep. I like it when I fly in my dreams. What do you dream about?”

What can you do in the evening to help your child fall asleep?

Start your bedtime routine at the right time

Not all children get sleepy at the same time, since the appropriate bedtime depends on biological factors specific to every child. However, there are some universal signs that a child is tired:

As your child gets older, signs of fatigue may change, and they may appear at different times of the day.
  • Yawning
  • Red eyes
  • Overexcitement (e.g., repeated actions or words)
  • Grouchiness
  • Crying
  • Saying “I’m tired” or “I want to go to bed”

It’s best to start your child’s bedtime routine and get them to bed before you see these signs. If you wait until afterward, your child may be too tired to fall asleep easily.

If your child is having trouble falling asleep, observe them for few nights and note when signs of fatigue start to appear. This will help you determine the best time to start their bedtime routine.

How much sleep do kids need?

In general, children aged 1 to 2 need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day, while children aged 3 to 5 need 10 to 13 hours of sleep each day, including naps.

Do a short bedtime routine every night

Père qui lit une histoire à son enfant lors de la routine du dodo

A good bedtime routine prepares your child for sleep with comforting, soothing, and enjoyable actions that they do every night (e.g., putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a story). It also needs to be done at the right time, before signs of fatigue appear.

  • Keep your child’s bedtime routine relatively short (about 15 minutes).
  • Adapt the routine to your child’s age, needs, and preferences. If they’re old enough, they may be happy to pick their bedtime routine like a big kid.
  • To make it easier to transition into the bedtime routine, be predictable by telling your child what’s going to happen next. Warn them that they will be going to bed soon and that they will have to stop playing in a few minutes.
  • Make sure your child isn’t hungry or thirsty before starting the routine. This way, they’ll be less likely to ask for something to eat or drink before they fall asleep or to wake up during the night.
  • Then, invite your child to start their routine: “We had so much fun playing together. It’s almost bedtime now. Time to put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, and go to the bathroom. Afterwards, we’ll read a story, you’ll get two hugs, and then you’ll have a nice sleep.”

Reassure your child.

Some children don’t like being separated from their parents or have a specific fear, like a fear of the dark, monsters, or ghosts. If that’s true for your child, bedtime may be difficult since they have to sleep apart from you.

Don’t minimize their feelings. Listen to your child when they say they want to stay with you. Then, reassure them that they’re capable of sleeping on their own and that you’re right outside in the living room, for example. If your child is afraid of monsters or ghosts, don’t say that you’ll get rid of them. Our fact sheet on bedtime fears (French only) has tips on how to respond.

Does napping prevent children from falling asleep at night?

Most children sleep in the afternoon until they’re 4 or 5 years old—and they need to. So don’t cut out naps too quickly, as a lack of sleep can lead to restlessness. It may even make it that much harder for your child to fall asleep at night.
Before eliminating naps, make sure that you’ve observed your child’s signs of fatigue at night so that you’re putting them to bed at the right time and that your child’s daytime routine promotes sleep. To learn whether your child still needs a nap, see our nap time fact sheet (French only).

When should you consult an expert?

Don’t hesitate to consult a health professional (e.g., a family doctor, nurse, pediatrician, or psychologist) in the following situations:

  • You have concerns about your child’s sleep
  • You or your partner are overwhelmed by your child’s sleep difficulties
  • You believe that your child’s sleep difficulties are related to a physical health problem (e.g., breathing or digestive issues) or psychological difficulties (e.g., anxiety)

At your appointment, tell the health care professional what your expectations are, including your child’s needs, your own needs, and your family’s values.

To learn more about other sleep-related difficulties (fears, nightmares, night terrors, etc.), consult our sleep disturbances fact sheet (French only).

Things to keep in mind

  • Changing some of your habits, both during the day and in the evening, can help your child fall asleep more quickly and easily at night.
  • Spending time with your child before starting their bedtime routine helps fulfill their need for attention before they go to bed. As a result, they’ll be less likely to drag out their bedtime routine to spend more time with you.
  • Your child will fall asleep more easily if they go to bed before they start showing signs of fatigue.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Evelyne Touchette, Ph.D., professor/researcher and sleep expert
Research and copywriting: Immerscience and the Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2022


Photos: GettyImages/JasonDoiy, FatCamera, and SolStock


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

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