Sleep habits start early

Child sleep in the early years is one of the leading reasons families reach out to health practitioners. Sleep is also a hot topic between families and early childhood educators. In this blog PROFESSOR HARRIET HISCOCK from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) writes about the two most commonly encountered problems: night waking and settling.

young child and educator prepare bedding

Why children’s sleep is important

Sleep is crucial for the health, wellbeing, development and learning of children. Studies show that up to 40 per cent of children experience problems with sleep during the early years of school, and often these problems have stemmed from the early years. Insufficient sleep impacts a child’s physical development, as well as their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour, and to focus on tasks. It is important for children to develop good sleep habits for their lifelong health, development and wellbeing.

Sleep in the early years

Children who sleep well are better able to learn new skills, show interest in the world, interact well with others and better deal with challenges and conflict. Even though sleep is based on biological rhythms and needs, sleep habits are learned and change with the development of a child.

As children develop from newborns to pre-schoolers, the amount of sleep required and their sleeping patterns change significantly. Sleeping patterns begin to develop in babies before birth; however, due to frequent needs for hunger or attention and the inability to tell night from day, newborns often have unpredictable sleeping patterns. By three months of age, this begins to change. A baby’s physical and emotional development is evolving and can support a more predictable sleep pattern.

How much sleep do children need?

MCRI research has shown that the amount of sleep alone is not the most important thing for positive health and wellbeing, and that there is a broad range of ‘normal’ sleep durations/patterns for Australian children. More important, perhaps, is for children to get good quality sleep—that is sleep that is largely unbroken through the night. Ensuring the child keeps to similar sleep start, wake and nap times also appears important.

Therefore, the best way to ensure a child is getting the sleep they need is by supporting them to develop good sleep habits. This involves routine and a healthy sleep environment (i.e. reducing noise and light, helping the child feel safe).

Key skills that children need to develop for healthy sleep habits include:

  • sleeping at night and waking during the day
  • sleeping at night without assistance
  • being able to return to sleep after waking up at night.

Children need the assistance of their caregivers (both in and outside of the home) to support the development of these healthy sleep habits.

To support early years educators working with children and families, MCRI partnered with ECA Learning Hub to develop an evidence-based professional learning package: Understanding sleep and safe sleep practices in early education and care. With children spending up to 55 hours per week in care, early years educators are in a unique position to promote positive development, identify developmental and behavioural concerns, and support families.

The three interactive learning modules that comprise the professional learning package are designed to integrate the latest evidence on children’s sleep needs with practical support for educators to apply the evidence in practice.

Some of the skills and knowledge educators will learn from these modules include:

  • understanding sleep and its importance to overall health
  • how to understand and identify the early tired signs of toddlers
  • understanding sleep and settling problems and how to support good sleep habits in early childhood settings
  • how to help families manage concerns about their child’s sleep and where to refer them for further help
  • how regulations like the National Quality Framework support the sleep and rest needs of children.

For further information on sleep and sleep practices in young children, click here to see the ECA Learning Hub modules.


Professor Harriet Hiscock is a consultant paediatrician and postdoctoral research fellow at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), which has partnered with ECA Learning Hub to produce a series of online professional learning resources for early childhood educators on sleep and young children. Harriet is a researcher and clinical practitioner, co-director of the Unsettled Babies Clinic and Group Leader of the Community Health Services Research group at MCRI. Her research interests include the impact of common child health problems on child and family functioning and developing new approaches to their management. Harriet leads the 400-strong Australian Paediatric Research Network, assisted by a team of 15 researchers.

Harriet Hiscock

Associate Professor Harriet Hiscock is a consultant paediatrician, NHMRC Career Development Fellow at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and inaugural Director of the Health Services Research Unit, at The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. She has conducted a number of successful trials in infant sleep, sleep in school entry children and sleep in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders. She has a keen interest in improving the quality and quantity of research into common childhood conditions and does this though the Australian Paediatric Research Network and the Community Health Services Research Group at MCRI. Emerging interests include reducing waste in children's healthcare and developing and testing new approaches to shift care from hospitals to the community.

2 thoughts on “Sleep habits start early”

    Astle Martyn says:

    Hi Harriet,

    Thank you sharing such a worthy post.

    I agree with your words, children who sleep early and well will easily learn new skills and interact well with everyone. This will improve the confidence of facing new challenges and conflict.

    Leminda Yelland says:

    I work with children 18months to 30months. Where can I learn more about co-sleeping? I have listened to the podcast but solutions around children’s sleep seem to be focussed on getting the young toddler to sleep on their own. I would like to learn more about this as some of the children in my service struggle to settle for rest and settling down for a sleep at home.

    Thank you

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