Tots' Sleep Habits: Eye-Opening New Findings
But parents should still try to correct bad sleep habits, expert says
As for napping, environment became a bigger influence as kids got older, explaining most of the differences in children's habits by age 4, Touchette said.
What can parents take away from all of this? "We've still got a lot to learn about children's sleep," Montgomery-Downs said.
For many parents, bedtime is anything but peaceful. Getting your child to settle down and fall asleep may be a battle, and then there are the questions: How much sleep is enough? Is your child waking up too often at night? Is he napping too much or too little?
There are no clear-cut answers, Montgomery-Downs said.
Experts have tried to come up with some general advice, based on what's typical for young children. According to the National Sleep Foundation, babies aged 3 months to 11 months sleep for an average of nine to 12 hours at night (total, not straight through), and take one to four naps during the day -- fewer as they approach 1 year. The average toddler gets about 12 to 14 hours of sleep over 24 hours, with most taking at least one daytime nap.
But that doesn't mean parents should worry if their child gets a little less sleep than that, or is stubborn about napping, Montgomery-Downs said. "Just because most kids average a certain amount of sleep doesn't mean that's the 'normal' amount," she said.
"We know that with adults, there's a lot of individual variation in how much sleep a person needs," Montgomery-Downs said. So children, too, may vary in how much sleep is enough, she said. But the research isn't there to know for sure.
There are things parents can do to help their little ones sleep at night, Touchette said. In one study, her team found that 5-month-olds were less likely to sleep for six straight hours at night when their parents fed them each time they woke.
Staying with your child until he falls asleep and picking him up each time he fusses are not good ideas, either, Touchette said.
Setting routines, including a consistent bedtime and a soothing activity such as reading a story, is important, Montgomery-Downs said.
Many parents try to keep their toddler awake during the day, thinking that will help them fall asleep at night. But that can backfire, she said, since overly tired kids may become irritable or hyperactive. "We know that nap deprivation is not good," she said.
If your child refuses to nap, however, you can't force him, Montgomery-Downs said. For a 3-year-old, it may signal that he's outgrown his need for an afternoon snooze. And the general rules are the same as for bedtime: Set up a consistent, quiet sleep environment and see what happens.