10 tips to establish healthy sleep habits for your preschooler

It can be hard to establish healthy sleep habits for your preschooler. Parents are usually exhausted themselves. Some days, it’s easier to just let your child run out of steam and collapse! Take parents Katy and Wes, for example.

Katy and Wes’s bed is regularly invaded by a tiny tyrant named Scarlett. The five-year-old sneaks into her parents’ bed every night. “She always slept in her bed, but now she gets up and insists on sleeping with us,” says Katy, a dentist. “It’s exhausting, so we give in.” Katy adds that Scarlett started escaping her own bed after she turned four.

I, too, can relate to Katy and Wes’s dilemma. As a mom of three boys, I’ve spent countless nights with my rear end hanging off of a toddler-sized bed. Usually, it’s when I was exhausted myself. I’d agree to lay down with my son until he went to sleep…but then I’d end up falling asleep right along with him.

And one son’s bedtime routine grew into more than an hour-long process that involved reading twenty books, giving back rubs, and telling stories! Usually, I was so exhausted after this routine that I ended up—once again—hanging off the side of his bed.

Do these stories sound familiar to you, too? Or maybe you have your own horror stories of bad sleep habits. If so, then you may need some help establishing healthy sleep habits for your preschooler. But first, let’s consider the importance of sleep for young children.

Just how important IS sleep?

Sleep directly impacts a child’s mental and physical development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sums up the effects of poor sleep habits. According to the NAEYC, sleep-deprived children can have:

  • difficulty focusing their attention
  • difficulty regulating their emotions and moods
  • inability or difficulty controlling their behavior
  • impaired memory

All of these effects can cause big problems for children in school. And children with poor sleep habits have a higher risk of obesity, according to many studies.

The good news is that the effects of sleep deprivation can be reversed. It’s never too late to establish healthy sleeping habits for your preschooler. So, here are 10 tips for getting you on the right track to better sleep for everyone.

10 tips for teaching healthy sleep habits to your preschooler

  1. Help your child recognize when he is tired.

We all know the behavior of an overtired preschooler isn’t pretty. So watch for signs of tiredness before he reaches this “point of no return.” Here are some signs:

  • rubbing his eyes
  • yawning
  • slowing down in activity level
  • crankiness
  • clinginess
  • gazing at nothing (“spacing out”)

Then, point out the signs to your child. For example, say, “I see you yawning!” Model yawning for your child, and say, “When you yawn, it means you are tired. Let’s get ready for bed.”

  1. Help her communicate the feeling of tiredness.

Talk about the feeling of tiredness with your child. Pretend to be tired by yawning and rubbing your eyes. (If your child has unhealthy sleep habits, then you won’t need to pretend to be tired!) Model using words to say you feel tired. For example, say, “I am so tired! I need my rest. Let’s lay down for a few minutes so we can rest.”

  1. Create a consistent routine for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.

A regular routine is the key to healthy sleep habits for your preschooler. Create a routine, stick to it, and your child will become used to following these same steps before bedtime. For example, consider following the 3 B’s: Bath, Book, and Bedtime. Whatever routine you choose, it should begin with a quiet activity about an hour before bedtime. Then it will gradually move toward your child’s bedroom—and ultimately, bed.

  1. Teach your child that sleep keeps him healthy and makes him feel better.

If your child takes naps, point out how he feels better after a nap. In the morning, reinforce the message that rest is good for our bodies. For example, say, “I slept so well last night. I feel good because I got a lot of rest.” Explain that when our bodies can rest, we can have more fun later.

  1. Make sure your child gets plenty of active play and exercise during the day.

Active play and exercise means moving the large muscles in his body. In other words, he needs to be running, jumping, climbing, or crawling. And the best place to do this is outside. Many parents have discovered that getting a child outside means better sleep at the end of the day, too. Make sure that your child doesn’t have too much quiet time (or screen time) during the day.

  1. Keep the BED in bedroom.

Don’t use your child’s bedroom as the time-out place. Make sure it’s a positive place that is associated with quiet time or restfulness. Help her put up toys and other things that could distract her during bedtime. And, perhaps most importantly, keep the TV (and other small screens) out!

  1. Keep it brief!

When leaving your child’s bedroom (once the routine is over), keep it brief. Follow a consistent process, such as giving him a kiss, turning on a nightlight, and turning off the light.

  1. Make sure naptimes follow a consistent routine and schedule.

If he takes naps, make sure he doesn’t take extremely long ones. A four-year-old may not need to take three-hour-long naps, for example. He may only need an hour at the most.

And if he’s getting enough sleep at night, he may not need a nap at all. What if you’re just not sure how much sleep your child actually needs—and whether he should even take a nap? Check out the recommended total daily amounts of sleep for young children from the National Sleep Foundation:

Age                                                     Recommended Total Sleep

Toddlers (ages 1 to 3)                        11 to 14 hours

Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5)                 11 to 13 hours

Most children stop taking naps when they are five years old. If your child still takes naps, just make sure you follow a consistent naptime routine. For example, you could have her fetch her blanket and then read her a book before laying down for naptime. And, if your child is starting school soon, be sure and communicate her naptime routine to her teacher. By knowing her home routine, the teacher can help her adjust to naptime or quiet time at school.

  1. Don’t let her go to bed hungry.

If dinnertime and bedtime are hours apart, your child might be hungry just before bedtime. If so, give your child a light, healthy snack. But avoid any caffeinated or sugary snacks. Some healthy before-bed snacks include milk, cheese and crackers, fruit and oatmeal, apple slices (with or without almond butter or peanut butter), and whole grain cereal.

  1. Read books about sleeping and bedtime.

Bedtime books are abundant. Children identify with certain characters, like the ones in Dilly’s Tree House. If they know that their favorite animals or characters sleep, then they might be more likely to sleep themselves. Here are a few good ones:

This classic board book soothes children to sleep with its lyrical, rhyming text. It also shows how animals need sleep just like people do. Perfect for a little animal lover.

Sleep helps all the superheroes stay strong and healthy in this book. Even Superman needs sleep so his muscles will stay strong! Superhero boys and girls will love this book.

Children will laugh at the funny illustrations of dinosaurs avoiding bedtime. But at the end, the dinosaurs show that they know exactly how to go to sleep. For a dinosaur lover, this book is the best.

These tips are great but…

What if your child has a specific sleep issue? How can you help the child with an active imagination—which can cause nightmares? And how can you get the little escape artist to stop escaping her bed? Here are some solutions for creating healthy sleep habits for your preschooler.

How to help a child who has nighttime fears

First, let your child know that you understand his fears. Don’t dismiss them as “silly.” Second, give your child some ideas for calming his fears. Our brave Dilly Gator does this for her little brother JT Gator in the book Dilly and JT Gator, one of seven delightful books in Dilly’s Tree House learning system. All seven books help young children develop social and emotional skills as they relate to the problems the InvestiGators solve.

Creating healthy sleep habits for your preschoolerIn Dilly and JT Gator, JT confesses that he’s afraid of the dark. Dilly gives JT several ideas, such as taking his favorite toy to bed, thinking about his favorite story, and listening to calming music. You can give Dilly’s same suggestions to your own child. Or, let Dilly give her ideas as you read the book to your child. Dilly and JT Gator is included in the third box, Starring JT Gator, in the Dilly’s Tree House learning system.

In the end, JT realizes that he just needs a nightlight to help him sleep. JT feels better because he thinks of the best idea for calming his fears. You can also enlist your child’s help in thinking of fear-fighting ideas. This helps him learn self-control and independence. It also gives him some power over his fear. Check out the National Sleep Foundation website for more tips for children who are too scared to sleep.

How to handle the escape artist

Consistency is key here. Each time, walk her back to bed with little explanation. At first, you can say, “It’s after bedtime! Let’s get you back to bed.” But after the first time, don’t talk. Just walk her back to bed. This ensures she gets little reaction from you – and makes getting out of bed an uneventful thing. If you engage her and attempt to reason or argue, you will prolong the process by giving her attention for getting out of bed. In the morning, encourage and praise her for staying in bed.

When to see a doctor

What if your child seems to be getting plenty of sleep at night but is still tired in the mornings? Or what if you’ve tried all sorts of methods to help your child sleep and nothing works? It may be time to check with a doctor. Here are some issues that might require medical help:

  • Loud, frequent snoring or lapses in breathing when sleeping (a sign of sleep apnea).
  • Restless movement at night and complaints of a very uncomfortable feeling in his legs. If the urge to move his legs seems to be uncontrollable, then your child could have restless legs syndrome (RLS).
  • Vivid nightmares or fears that cannot be calmed. These nightmares may cause your child to wake up multiple times a night. If your child also acts out vivid dreams by kicking, punching, or hitting, then he might have a REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD).
  • If your child is walking the house during the night in a daze, then she could have a sleepwalking disorder.

Sometimes, children with sleep disorders could be misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If you’ve wondered if your preschooler might have ADHD, you might want to consider the possibility of a sleep disorder first. Check out this article on ADHD and sleep disorders for more information.

Are your child’s unhealthy sleep habits causing havoc for your family? Feel free to comment below! And, if you’ve discovered tips for healthy sleep habits for your preschooler, please share them.


Susan Light
[email protected]

Susan Light is a mom, a grandmother, a journalist, and an educational expert. She is a senior editor at Rainbow Educational Concepts, and she blogs regularly for Dilly’s Tree House. Susan focuses on research-based topics for parents of preschoolers and ways to help young children get ready for kindergarten.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.