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Sleep In Early Childhood

18 May 2006 3:26 AM - Dr Roger Morris

Managing sleep for babies and children is one of the most common concerns for parents. There is no right way to put babies and children to sleep. Patterns vary between different cultures and different families.

Part of our Australian society is to have separate bedrooms for children away from parents, however babies and young children can sometimes find sleeping alone difficult and unsettling. In many other cultures and families, young children sleep with or near parents. What is most important is that your children's sleep is safe. Research has shown that the safest place for a baby to sleep is in the same room as their parents, but the risk for a baby sleeping in another part of the house is very small. Sharing a bed with the parent works for some families, but this is not advisable in very small and young babies, as this may result in accidental smothering of the baby or may increase the risk of SIDS.

Pre-sleep rituals and routines can help babies and children to relax and settle into 'sleep mode'. They generally find comfort and security in familiar and predictable routines such as a bath, a massage, a story or a cuddle. Night-waking in infants and young children is normal and is usually easily managed with reassuring words or touch. Some night-waking can be due to pain and discomfort such as teething and earache, so analgesics such as paracetamol or ibruprofen can be considered in this is suspected. In young babies, wrapping or swaddling can make them feel more secure and less exposed. This can often improve their ability to settle for sleep.

'Controlled Crying' is a technique often recommended as a way of managing infants and young children who do not settle alone or who wake at night. Controlled crying involves leaving the infant to cry for increasingly longer periods of time before providing comfort. The intention of controlled crying is to teach babies to put themselves to sleep and to stop them crying or calling out at night. Some health professional organisations such as the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health ( www.aaimhi.org ) have expressed concerns that controlled crying may have unintended negative consequences on the infant’s emotional and psychological health, especially in very young infants. They state that young infants (under the age of 4-6 months) are more likely to develop secure attachments when their crying is responded to promptly, consistently and appropriately. Secure attachments in infancy are the foundation for good adult mental health. Infants whose parents respond and attend to their crying promptly, learn to settle more quickly in the long run as they become secure in the knowledge that their needs for emotional comfort will be met.

Waking in older infants and young children may be due to separation anxiety, and in these cases sleeping near parents is a valid option if it works for the family. Older toddlers and preschool aged children who have disturbed sleep patterns are more appropriate candidates for behavioural techniques, more regular sleep routines and limit setting.

If sleep issues are persistent and causing chronic tiredness and stress within the family, parents should see their local doctor for advice, or contact their local Child Health Clinic. Parents on the Sunshine Coast also have access well experienced private infant health services such as 'Settle Petal' ( www.settlepetal.com ).


1. Position Paper 1: Controlled Crying. Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc. www.aaimhi.org .

2. Child & Youth Health (SA). www.cyh.com .