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Sleep - 3 years to 6 years

sleep; child; children; routines; nap; bed; separation; night; waking. ;

There is a wide range of 'normal' sleep patterns between 3 and 5 years. Many children of this age need about 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night. Bedtime may vary a lot. Some may go to bed at 6.30pm, while many go to bed later. Wake-up time may be early or late and those who go to bed later tend to wake later. Young children may still need a daytime nap as well, but by kindergarten age only a few children still have daytime nap. 

Children under 3-4 years may still feel insecure when they are separated from their parents, especially at night. They may still wake at night and need comforting.

Some of the content of this topic comes from the Parent Easy Guide 34 Sleep (children 0 - 6 years) developed by Parenting SA.


Going to bed

Children often do not want to go to bed. Going to bed means missing out on things.

To help 3–6 year olds prepare for the idea of going to bed, familiar night time activities will help.

  • Work out a night time pattern around what is special for you and your child. A typical pattern may include a bath, drink, teeth cleaning, cuddle, story, prayer or song and kiss ‘goodnight’. It might be a quiet time to sit on the bed and talk about the events of the day. 
  • It is helpful to let children know in advance that bedtime is coming, e.g. ‘just one more game and then it’s time to get ready for bed’ – and mean what you say. This can prevent the pestering for more time to stay up.
  • The half-hour before bed is not a good time for tickles, wrestles, quarrels, TV or other excitement.

Settling ideas

If you have a night time pattern it will help to settle your child but stressful events of the day can sometimes mean that extra time and quiet attention is needed, e.g. starting school, being unwell, family disruptions. Reassuring words, a longer cuddle or relaxing music can help.

It is at these moments that older children may talk about things that are bothering them.

Some children need the door open so that they know that you are near. If your child is anxious, let her know that you will pop in during the night to check how she is.

Night waking

Night waking is common in these years and there is no ‘right way’ to solve night waking. Sometimes doing whatever works for you as a family is good enough. Some children can resettle themselves – others may need comforting.

The inner confidence to feel secure when parents are not present is still developing by three to four years of age. If night waking is being caused by separation anxiety, it usually improves after four years of age.

At times when children are sick, lonely, sad or frightened they need help to go back to sleep. The changes in your child’s life, e.g. moving house, separations, and family tensions or starting preschool can be difficult for children.

Children usually grow out of night waking by the time they are three or four, and they feel more secure being by themselves.

What parents can do

  • Try to settle your child where they will be sleeping the night, so you don’t have to move them.
  • During the night when they wake, go to them and quietly reassure them that everything is all right. Say something like ‘Sleep time now – Mummy and Daddy love you’, then walk out of the room. If your child remains unsettled you may need to try some of the ideas below.
  • If your child comes into your room when they wake, you could try to lead them back to bed, and resettle them there.
  • Sometimes putting a spare bed in your child’s room so that you can be comfortable and can rest while your child needs you close is an option.

Some parents find that everyone gets a better night’s sleep if they allow their child to come into their own bed during the early hours of the morning – or they have a small mattress and sleeping bag next to their bed that their child can get into if he wakes.  If your sleep is not disturbed by this, there is nothing wrong with this pattern, but if you cannot sleep well with a child in your bed, you will need to persist with taking him back to his own bed.

Night-time waking is for comforting and resettling, not for getting out of bed for play or anything else exciting. Be comforting but boring. Don’t respond to any games.

  • Ask your child what would help them go to sleep. Some children can tell you, others may not be able to.
  • Think about the changes happening in your child’s life that can cause stress. They may seem minor to an adult, but can be major in the eyes of a child.

As children grow older and become more secure they will not need to be so close to you. Most children no longer need to share their parents’ bed or bedroom by the time they are four or five years old, unless something stressful is happening in their lives. Many children still love to come into their parents’ bed for a snuggle early in the mornings. In some families, children sleep in the same room as their parents for many years. This can help children feel very safe.

Going to bed problems

There is no 'right way' to solve sleep problems. Sometimes doing whatever works, and does not distress you or your child, is good enough.

Sometimes parents find it is hard to get young children to go to bed, or their early waking causes problems - and there are many different reasons for this. In some cultures children sleep in or near the action, and can nap whenever they feel tired - and there is nothing wrong with this. However parents are often tired at the end of the day and need time to themselves, or need extra sleep in the morning - more than their child does.

Some of the reasons a child may not want to go to bed may be:

  • having to go off on his own and leaving people or interesting things that are happening in the house
  • being frightened of being left alone. No matter what time you put your child to bed, if he is afraid or worried he will still be unhappy
  • not being tired yet - probably will go to bed happily but later
  • a very busy or exciting day, or too much excitement just before bed (quiet wind-down time helps)
  • being affected by daylight saving (just like some adults)
  • lack of a night-time routine to help him wind down
  • being put to bed too early.

Children usually wake when they have had enough sleep, so early waking may be because of early bedtime.

Some things to try with older children

There are some things you can't control, eg sunrise, however there are other things you can influence.

  • Make sure your child has a regular bedtime that gets later as she needs less sleep.
  • Use a relaxing bedtime routine – without excitement and stimulation.
  • If your child is more attached to one parent it sometimes helps if that parent spends calm and quiet time with the child before bedtime. Then the other parent puts her to bed.
  • Play soft music or leave a quiet radio playing.
  • Leave the door open or shut – whichever your child wants.
  • Sometimes children will settle where the action is, and can be carried to their own beds later. It may mean that they may wake later and may want you because she doesn't know where she is and will need you to help her resettle. 
  • If you decide that you want your child to go to bed a bit earlier and you don't mind if she wakes earlier too, try putting her to bed a quarter of an hour earlier.
    • Sleep rhythms take some time to change so you can expect to wait for about two weeks before you see any real change in sleep behaviour.
    • Then, if that works, you might try another quarter of an hour.
  • It may help to change early waking to put your child to bed later to see if that will help her sleep longer in the morning.

Controlled crying. Some people may suggest that you let your child 'cry it out' or that you use controlled crying/comforting. This is not recommended. It stresses children. Your young child needs you to respond when he cries, to help him feel safe and secure.

Looking after yourself

Caring for babies and young children is tiring and demands a great deal of tolerance, understanding and patience. Most parents say that their need for sleep in the early years is one of their greatest needs. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help from family and friends.

If you feel that you might hurt your child make sure they are in a safe place and leave until you have calmed down. Contact someone immediately if you feel unable to manage.

Need more information?

South Australia

  •  Parent Helpline 1300 364 100 .
  • Your child health nurse: ring 1300 733 606 for an appointment
  • Parenting SA  For more Parent Easy Guides, e.g. ‘Sleep disturbance’ ‘About babies’, ‘Bedwetting’, ‘Living with toddlers’, and for parent groups in your area 

Raising Children Network (Australian parenting website) 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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