The Preschooler and Family : Sleep

  • Sleep
    • Sleep patterns vary widely but average preschooler sleeps about 12 hours 
    • Preschool years are a primetime for sleep disturbances 
    • Maintaining rituals is important 
    • Preschoolers may have difficult differentiating between reality and fantasy 
    • Nightmares and night terrors are a common experience in preschoolers
    • Comparison of nightmares to sleep terrors



Sleep terrors


A scary dream; takes place during REM sleep and is followed by full waking

A partial arousal from very deep sleep (state IV, non-REM) sleep

Time of distress

After dream is over, child wakes and cries or calls; not during

nightmare itself

During terror itself, as child screams and thrashes; afterward is calm

Time of occurrence

In second half of night,

when dreams are most


Usually, 1 to 4 hours after falling asleep, when non-REM sleep is deepest

Child’s behavior

Crying in younger children, fright in all; behaviors persistent

even though child is awake

Initially may sit up, thrash, or run-in bizarre manner; may cry, scream, talk, or moan; shows

apparent fright, anger, or obvious confusion, which

disappears when child is fully awake

Responsiveness to others

Is aware of and reassured by another’s presence

Is not aware of another’s presence, is not comforted,

and may push person away and scream and thrash

more if held or restrained

Return to sleep

May be considerably delayed because of persistent fear

Usually rapid; often difficult to keep child awake

Description of dream interventions

Accept dream as real fear

Sit with child; offer comfort, assurance, and sense of


Avoid forcing child back to his or her own bed

Consider professional counseling for recurrent nightmares

Requires little intervention

No memory of dream or of yelling or thrashing Intervene only if necessary, to protect child from injury

Guide child back to bed if needed

      • Sleep disturbances frequently occur during early childhood, and problems range from difficulty going to bed to night terrors. Appropriate interventions vary, but can include the following 
        • Keep a consistent bedtime routine
        • Use a night-light in the room
        • Provide the child with a favorite toy
        • Leave a drink of water by the bed
        • Reassure preschoolers who are frightened, but avoid allowing preschoolers to sleep with their parents