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Preschoolers and Sleep: Expert Advice

How to handle naps, bedtime power struggles, and more.
By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

You take your 3-year-old to the playground with the hope that running her ragged will tire her out by 8 p.m. and allow you to enjoy a relaxing evening and maybe sleep in a bit. But the plan backfires. Your rambunctious kid is still bouncing off the walls at 9 p.m., finally falls asleep later that night, and then wakes up full of energy and ready to play at 6 a.m.

Sound familiar? Parents may think getting through the night with a newborn was tough, but getting a preschooler to sleep can be a challenge that leaves even the most patient moms and dads exasperated. When preschool children don't get enough sleep it can affect their mood, behavior, eating habits, and ability to focus during the day.

"Kids are like their parents -- they're not getting enough sleep," said Richard Kravitz, MD, a pediatrician and director of the Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. "How many times have you seen 3-year-olds out to dinner with their parents at 10 o'clock at night? But kids are not little adults and kids need more sleep than adults. You want to have good sleep hygiene, which means good quantity and good quality."

So how do you know if you have good sleep hygiene? "You know your kid is getting a good night's sleep if they get up happy and refreshed, ready to go," Kravitz says.

Establishing Good Sleep Habits -- to Nap or Not to Nap?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, children aged 3-5 need about 11 to 13 hours of sleep every night. In addition, many preschoolers nap during the day, with naps ranging between one and two hours per day. Children often stop napping after five years of age.

Experts say every preschooler is different -- some kids will stick with their nap routines from their infant days and other kids will start to refuse napping when they reach the preschool years. The trick is to be consistent, stay calm, and make sure your preschooler gets at least 11 hours of sleep per night and down time or naps -- if napping is needed -- at the same time every day.

"Up until 2-3 years of age, most children will take two naps per day," says Christine Briccetti, MD, a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. "The typical preschooler will take only one nap, usually in the afternoon and lasting one to two hours. Many children this age will no longer nap at all. Naps are not necessary if your child does not get cranky or over tired. However, if your preschooler does not nap, he or she will still benefit from daily quiet time.

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