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Preschoolers and Sleep: Expert Advice

How to handle naps, bedtime power struggles, and more.

Nixing Their Nap

If your child refuses naptime, don't worry. Kids in this age group don't necessarily need a nap every day, but they should have predictable down time, which means time scheduled at the same point in the day every day for simply resting. 

"This is the time of day when you take away stimulation," says Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, pediatrician and author of the Seattle Children's Hospital blog "Seattle Mama Doc." "This time is still restful for a child. It's not restorative sleep, but it's important downtime."

Experts agree what's most important is to establish sleeping routines and be consistent. Preschoolers thrive on schedules.

Getting to Bed

Many parenting books will recommend warm baths or a bedtime story to help your preschooler fall asleep, but this doesn't always work. Often times, a preschooler who refuses to go to bed is a preschooler who is overtired.

Setting an earlier bedtime or starting quiet time earlier on to help preschoolers transition to bedtime might help. Keeping them up later does not, Briccetti says.

"When children become overtired they get cranky, which can increase the bedtime struggles," she says. "Parents will sometimes react by keeping them up later to try to tire them out, which exacerbates the problems. Offer rewards for nights without struggle, but try not to scold or punish your child if they are resistant. Remember, you have control over when your child goes to bed, not when he or she falls asleep. If they are unable to fall asleep quickly, the rule should be that they have to remain lying quietly in bed."

Some preschoolers continue to co-sleep with their parents, a practice that is common among some cultures. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against parent-infant bedsharing because of the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  The risk of SIDS declines after the first year, but if a young child co-sleeps with his parents on a long-term basis, it may become difficult  to get him to sleep independently.

"The older the child gets the more difficult it can become to encourage him or her to sleep in their own room," Briccetti says.

Parents often think toddler beds help preschoolers adjust to sleeping on their own or out of a crib.

Experts recommend that if a child is big enough to climb out of a crib or is toilet-training, then it's time to transition to a regular bed. Some children can transition directly from a crib to a regular twin-sized bed, so a toddler bed isn't always necessary.

Sleeping Through the Night

Preschool-aged children have active imaginations, so it's no surprise they awaken easily during the night either from bad dreams or just because they're frightened. Experts say what can help make bedtime less scary and more manageable is to ensure that the child's nighttime sleep environment is one that is quiet, dark, and without a TV.

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