Helping your baby into a regular sleep cycle is important for their brain, body and more

By Lori Cohen

Children aged between one and three need 12 to 14 hours’ sleep in a 24-hour cycle. Even preteens are recommended up to 11 hours! Cracking the elusive sleep code is not only great for your sanity, it’s crucial for your child to reach their full potential – emotionally, physically and cognitively.


Paediatrician Dr Aziza Van Der Schyff, who runs her practice next to The Constantia Sleep Centre in Cape Town, says that children who are not getting enough sleep may experience problems with learning, attention, hyperactivity, and conduct.

Sleep-deprived children may seem over-energised to compensate for their exhaustion. Your child may not have Attention Hyperactivity Disorder by losing just one hour of sleep a night they could display similar symptoms, according to the journal Sleep. Homework, sports and screen time are all sleep thieves.
But there’s more at risk biologically if your child is lacking shuteye. Research by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine showed that the growth hormone needed for tissue and muscle development is released primarily during sleep.

Healthy sleep habits can also help prevent your child from developing chronic illnesses later in life because ‘sleep debt’ increases their risk of obesity, diabetes and a suppressed immune system. This is because sleep regulates the neuroendocrine system and glucose metabolism.

‘Bedtime and nap-time routines help to give children (especially toddlers) a sense of time. By following consistent steps to downtime, they will begin to anticipate and understand when it’s time to sleep,’ she says.


The key is to be consistent with your routine, to keep it short and not to implement it too late at night, says Jolandi Becker, managing director of Good Night Baby. ‘Bedtime and nap-time routines help to give children (especially toddlers) a sense of time. By following consistent steps to downtime, they will begin to anticipate and understand when it’s time to sleep,’ she says.


#1 Controlled crying or ‘check and console’ (also called the Ferber method)
The child is allowed to cry for longer periods of time each night with the parent returning to pat and shush for comfort.

#2 Gradual withdrawal
The child is allowed time to self-settle for a few minutes when it wakes up during the night. If needed the parent reeneters the room to soother verbally for a few moments before leaving again.

#3 Pickup/put down
The child is picked up to sooth if crying and then placed down to sleep in repeated cycles until they are asleep.


Remember that repetition can also bore toddlers so you can spice things up by including a shower rather than bath, or singing a song rather than reading a book. ‘Keep the steps to sleep similar, but not necessarily exactly the same,’ says Jolandi. Keep your routines simple, around three activities in the same order every night during these periods (one of them being milk time) – and then stick to the routine!
A bedtime routine should be about 30 minutes long, she recommends.  ‘If it becomes too long your baby or toddler can become over stimulated and overtired.’  

Other things to consider if you’re struggling? Expose your baby to lots of natural light during the day during periods when they awake recurrently during the night. Go for walks, open the windows or lie on a blanket outside. Thirty minutes morning and afternoon will help to re-adjust your baby’s internal clock.


A bedtime routine shouldn’t stop once your kids are out of nappies. Jacqui Flint of Baby Love recommends taking ‘back the night’ by avoiding screen time before bed and scheduling quiet time with your child instead. ‘Having this quiet time before bedtime with your child is also a beautiful bonding time for child and parent. As your child grows older you can chat about the day, their friends and their activities.
Surprisingly, many parents have found that after the winding down time they have spent with their child, they leave the room feeling more relaxed too,’ she says.


Sleep training is a controversial topic. While the methods may not suit everyone, it’s agreed that developing a regular time to go to sleep is beneficial to both parents and the child. The methods range in duration from a couple of nights to a couple of weeks, depending on the age of the child. ‘Don’t attempt sleep training in isolation,’ warns Jolandi, who favours a holistic approach. ‘Make sure all the building blocks of sleep are in place. Environment, nutrition, bedtime routine and their schedule during the day,’ she says.

While every child is slightly different in terms of how much sleep they need, most require the following to be fully rested:

Recommended: 14-17 hours
May be appropriate: 11-13 hours (Not less than 11 hours)
18-19 hours (Not more than 19 hours)

Recommended: 12-15 hours
May be appropriate: 10-11 hours (Not less than 10 hours)
16-18 hours (Not more than 18 hours)

Recommended: 11-14 hours
May be appropriate: 9-10 hours (Not less than 9 hours)
15-16 hours (Not more than 16 hours)

Recommended: 10-13 hours
May be appropriate: 8-9 hours (Not less than 8 hours)
14 hours (Not more than 14 hours)


Recommended: 9-11 hours
May be appropriate: 7-8 hours (Not less than 7 hours)
12 hours (Not more than 12 hours)

Recommended: 8-10 hours
May be appropriate: 7 hours (Not less than 7 hours)
11 hours (Not more than 11 hours)

Recommended: 7-9 hours
May be appropriate: 6 hours (Not less than 6 hours)
10-11 hours (Not more than 11 hours)