Babies and young children need sleep to grow and develop. A well-rested child is better able to concentrate, learn, engage with others, and cope with challenges.
But a successful sleep-rest practice is far from simple, as educators must adhere to safe sleep practices while balancing the competing distractions of the bustling group environment, family requests and the individual needs of the child.
Sleep has an important role in healthy cognitive and psychosocial development in early life as well as many physical benefits. A well-rested brain can solve problems, consolidate memories, learn new information and enjoy the day a lot more than a tired brain.
A recent study found babies also build their episodic memory when they nap. This enables them to remember the details of their individual experiences after napping.
Sleep patterns change with age, but even if they no longer nap, a child will benefit from an hour of quiet time reading, listening to mellow music, or simply staying still. Quiet time helps children to recharge and allows their minds to rest in advance of a busy afternoon program.
Key criteria for supporting a healthy sleep-rest time for young children includes:
- Setting up a daily schedule with plenty of physical activity
- Providing safe sleep areas, which confirm to government requirements
- Planning regular, consistent and relaxing routines to facilitate a smooth transition to sleep-rest time
- Ensuring children feel safe, secure and protected,
- Developing a strong relationship with the children and focusing on a positive sleep-rest experience
- Meeting each child's individual needs for sleep or rest
- Creating a comfy rest-relaxation space for children
- Ensuring a calm mood for sleeping and quiet play with reduced lighting and noise, and a comfortable room temperature
Meeting each child's individual needs for sleep
Each child's sleep habits are unique and may depend on their temperament. Some babies are easy going and adapt to new situations quickly while others need a routine that is the same every day.
Infants and very young toddlers sleep at many different times of the day, so a mandated naptime can create a challenging situation. Older toddlers are usually ready to follow a nap schedule around the time when they settle on a single nap after lunch. Use the child's signals to plan the day for that child. Let babies and toddlers set their own schedules as much as possible.
Since not all children will nap at the same time, make a safe rest place in your setting that you can supervise easily. It is good if the children know that they can rest anytime they are feeling tired. While some older preschoolers will ask to rest, most often the children will need you to suggest a rest time. Truly tired children will be able to sleep even if the area is noisy.
Spotlight sleep-rest practice as a key learning opportunity
Educators can play an important role in teaching children about the importance of sleep, rest and relaxation for the mind and body. By talking about feelings of tiredness educators can support children to recognise and respond to their own signs of fatigue.
By drawing on a family’s knowledge of their child’s sleep habits and allowing them to voice and preferences you can work with them to best meet the sleep needs of a child within the parameters of the early learning setting.
A daily record of sleep is good practice and can be shared with families at the end of the day. All sleeping children should be monitored regularly and where children find it difficult to sleep or rest, educators should work closely with families offering support to work on practices or routines together.
Offer a quiet space
Some early learning centres provide a sleep and rest time at a set time of day, requiring the children to lie down regardless of whether they are tired or able to sleep. This practice can create challenges as it fails to consider children’s individual needs and their right to choose.
A 2017 study on sleep practices in Queensland found that many services did not provide alternatives for non-sleeping children or for children who are tired outside of the scheduled sleep-rest time. The study observed 2,300 preschool children in 130 centres and found that only 30 per cent slept during sleep-rest times, yet 80 per cent of centres mandated a period of time where no alternative activity was permitted.
Providing a quiet space in a designated area enables children to retreat when they feel weary and a space to calm themselves and rest when needed.
Children who aren’t showing signs of tiredness or who can’t settle can be offered alternative quiet activities such as books and puzzles. This facilitates a positive rest experience by not enforcing a child to lie in a bed or cot if they are not sleepy.
Regardless of the time of day, children showing signs of tiredness or those that request some rest time should be offered a dedicated sleep-rest space.
While it is the norm in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, the outdoor nap is gaining traction in Australia and New Zealand as local centres embrace this open-air approach.
Numerous studies have shown that napping outside in the fresh air has many benefits for children including increased immunity, decreased stress and better-quality sleep, it may help children fall asleep more quickly.
Generally, the best age for outdoor naps is 2-5 years old and you will need to identify a suitable space with shade and protection. Organise appropriate bedding, communicate and discuss your intentions with parents and remain mindful of individual differences. Running a trial is a great way to determine if this approach could work for the children and families in your service.
Planning transitions to create calm
Preparing children for sleep or rest requires the same careful planning as other transitions. The usual routine of preparing young children for sleep is to turn down the volume, play soft music and, where appropriate, offer a familiar blanket or cuddly toy.
Other strategies for easing the transition to sleep time include:
Sharing a story: Choose books that convey a sense of warmth and calmness.
Slowing down: There is no need to rush, ask children to use the bathroom and support them to prepare their bedding themselves. Set a slow and calm pace with gentle encouragement. A familiar routine allows children to build confidence and independence while learning to wind-down.
Breathing deep: Breathing calms children by slowing them down and it’s a great coping mechanism for dealing with stress. Have the children close their eyes to help them shut out distractions and try these exercises like ‘Flower Breath’ or ‘The Bunny Breath’.
Tensing and relaxing: Teach children to tense and then relax different muscle groups. Guide them to start with the toes; move up to the legs, stomach, arms and finish with the jaw, face and eyes.
Relax with imagery: Studies have shown that guided imagery can help the mind and body relax. It is a technique that uses the imagination to slow thoughts down and release worries. Educators can create a peaceful image in children’s minds: “Let’s imagine. It’s a warm, sunny day, and we are lying under a beautiful tree. We can smell flowers…”
References and further reading:
CareforKids.com.au: Successful sleep strategies
ACECQA: Safe sleep and rest practices