Sleep or the lack of it, dominates the conversations of most parents with young children which is hardly surprising considering that up to 1 in 4 pre-school children have a persistent sleep problemWhen it comes to sleep there are many types of problems and a child could have just one problem or a mixture of problems. There are a number of approaches that parensts can use when dealing with sleepless nights and which approach you choose will depend on a number of factors.

Common Sleep Problems

Frequent waking during the night

This is by far the most common sleep problem and is often related to the child’s sleep associations. Sleep associations refer to everything your child associates with falling asleep. Give your child an alternative association by introducing a “friend” such as a cuddly toy or a special blanket to be with them while they sleep. A dim light provides reassurance for the child who wakens during the night.

Difficulty settling to sleep alone

Some children will not settle unless a parent stays with them until they are asleep. One solution is to be consistent in your approach. Institute a bedtime routine and make sure your child is free of distractions when trying to sleep.

Feeding during the night

As your child grows they should need fewer and fewer night feeds. Feeding during the night can become a problem if it becomes associated with falling to sleep. You need to gradually reduce the amount your child is drinking.

Nightmares or sleep terrors?

Nightmares are quite common and are usually transient in nature. However they can sometimes be linked to daytime stress or worries. The world of the toddler is full of new experiences that can be frightening, so it might be useful to look at their day to make sure they are not under stress. Video and television viewing needs to be carefully supervised for young children  – their limited understanding can make even cartoons frightening. A child who wakes after a nightmare usually only needs to be comforted and reassured. Night terrors are entirely different and occur earlier in the night as the child moves from one stage of sleep to another. The best way to deal with sleep terrors is to make sure your child is safe and not to intervene, as this may upset them further.

Sleeping at the wrong times

Some parents find it difficult to stick to the same bedtime with children going to bed later and later. Other parents  On the other hand some parents have a situation where their toddler is getting up for the day in the early hours of the morning. Both can be very frustrating situations and it can be difficult to know how to handle them.

What to do?

Both of the above problems usually develop gradually and the best approach to both is a gradual reversal. It would help to keep a sleep diary to check on your child’s pattern. In the case of the late sleep phase it’s best to start by bringing the bedtime back by 10 minutes. When your child has adjusted to this, bring the bedtime back by another 10 minutes. Continue with this approach until your child’s bedtime is at an hour that you think is reasonable.

For the child who is in the early sleep phase the same approach applies. Gradually put your child to bed later in the evening until you have reached the bedtime you want. The secret to the success of this approach is that it is done gradually to allow the child’s body clock to adjust to the changes.

Refusing to Sleep Alone

Most small children would happily sleep in the parental bed and for some parents this is no problem However for many parents this is not an option. It can be very frustrating when, on being put to sleep in their own bed your little one appears beside your bed just as you are settling to sleep. Or being woken in the middle of the night to find yourself hanging out of the bed minus your warm duvet can be somewhat disconcerting! Your toddler has managed to get into your bed and is now in the process of kicking and tossing as they make themselves comfortable.

What to do:
Two ways of dealing with this problem are:

Consistently take the child back to bed when they appear in your room. If you can gently but firmly encourage your child to stay in their own bed this will eventually work.


For children over 3 years, you can try using Star charts to help them stay in their own room. In this approach the child is rewarded or receives a star for spending the night in his/her own bed. The stars can accumulate until, say the child had received three stars, and either gets a treat or gets to do something pleasant with either or both their parents.
Where the child will only settle to sleep in their parent’s bed you could try moving your child’s bed or cot into your own room. The child’s bed can later be moved back to their own room once they have become used to settling to sleep in it.

Approaches to Sleep Problems

There are a number of approaches parents can take to solve their child’s sleep problem. The choice of which to use will depend on a number of factors which include the type of sleep problem, the personalities involved and practical considerations such as space and timing.

The main approaches that are used to solve sleep problems are:

Cry it out/Checking

This approach can work quickly and has been shown to be very successful. It has received bad press and some parents find it too difficult to implement. However if the situation has reached crisis point, this approach could provide a relatively quick and successful solution.

Graded Steps

This is a gradual approach, which involves changing your child’s routine through a series of steps. This approach can be very successful but does take time and patience. It can also be difficult to decide what the next step should be.

Star Charts

Star charts can be used with older pre-schoolers and can be fun for both the child and parent. They need to be targeted at very specific behaviours.

Parental Bed

This approach involves allowing your child to remain in the parental bed for part or all of the night. Some parents find this approach works very well for them while others do not find that it helps.

Living With It

It may be that having considering all the options you decide that now is not the right time to deal with the problem. If this is the case then it might be useful to look at ways of coping and living with the problem until it naturally solves itself.