What you need to know

  • It's common for children this age to call out from bed or get out of bed after you've said goodnight – especially if they've just moved into a big bed.
  • Lots of children rock on all fours, roll from side to side, or rhythmically bang their heads on the bed as they’re falling asleep. Believe it or not, this behaviour can comfort and soothe them, and help them settle themselves to sleep.
  • Night terrors can happen before the age of one, but they're most common in children between three and eight years old. They can be scary for parents and caregivers, but they don’t hurt your child, who won’t remember them in the morning.
  • Sleepwalking is quite common in children aged between four and 12, and often happens in the first few hours of the night.
  • Lack of sleep can be very stressful for parents, and it can affect your health. You need rest too. 

Getting out of bed

It's common for children this age to call out from bed or get out of bed after you've said goodnight – especially if they've just moved into a big bed.

It’s a good idea to:

  • make sure they have everything they need for sleep before you leave the room, remind them it’s time for sleep, and that they need to stay in bed
  • be consistent, and try not to go in every time they call out. It's a good idea to only respond if you think they really need something.
  • calmly ask them to go back to bed if they get up, reminding them you’re nearby in the other room, and repeat this process each time they get out of bed
  • remember, sometimes they really do need something. If your toddler’s frightened of monsters under the bed, quickly check (with the light off) to confirm the room is free of monsters. If they’re scared of the dark, think about using a night-light.
Many toddlers and preschoolers have settling and sleep problems, but in children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), these problems can be more severe. Read more.

Body rocking, head-rolling and head-banging

Lots of children rock on all fours, roll from side to side, or rhythmically bang their heads on the bed as they’re falling asleep. Believe it or not, this behaviour can comfort and soothe them, and help them settle themselves to sleep. These behaviours often start between six and nine months of age, and they’re nearly always harmless.

Most children outgrow the behaviour between three and five years old, but some take longer.

If your child is developing well in other ways, you don’t need to do anything about this behaviour.  If it worries you:

  • try to pay no attention to it – your kids may do it more if they see it’s an effective way of getting attention.
  • try to make sure the child goes to bed tired so they don’t have so much time for the behaviour.
  • comfort and support your child during the day if they seem anxious.

To reduce the risk of the child being hurt:

  • shift the bed away from the wall, remove any hard bed heads.
  • try putting your child’s mattress on the floor.

If you’re really worried about it, talk to your Plunket nurse or GP. It helps if you have a video you can show them so they can see exactly what your child is doing.

Body rocking and head banging can be especially intense in children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), developmental delay, and in blind children too, and they’re also more likely to show this behaviour during the day. For these children, the rocking and banging can be harmful.

Read more about body rocking, head-rolling and head-banging in bed

Nightmares

Nightmares are bad dreams that wake children up, leaving them feeling frightened, tearful and upset. Children of all ages can have nightmares, and they’re most likely to happen in the early hours of the morning, when your child is in REM (dream) sleep.

Depending on the age of your child, they may be able to remember and describe their bad dream to you. Nightmares seem very real to children, so avoid dismissing the fear or telling them they’re being silly. Explain it was a bad dream, and let them know that they’re safe and everything is okay. They might still be scared to go back to sleep, and will need you to comfort them and spend some time helping them settle down before they’ll be able to go back to sleep.

As children get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream.

Nightmares can reflect:

  • what they’ve been watching on TV or reading in books, or what they’ve been talking to their friends about during the day
  • worries your child might be having during the day
  • a child’s vivid imagination
  • traumatic events the child has been through.

If your child:

  • is having nightmares after a traumatic event like a car accident, natural disaster, or death in the family
  • is experiencing a lot of stress during the day and having nightmares,

it might be a good idea to seek professional advice.

Night terrors

Night terrors can happen before the age of one, but they're most common in children between three and eight years old. They can be scary for parents and caregivers, but they don’t hurt your child, who won’t remember them in the morning.

Night terrors happen in the early part of the night, a couple of hours after your child has gone to sleep. They often start with a cry or a scream, and your child may look like they’re awake and panicked. They may be sweating, breathing fast, and their heart may be pounding.

Your child might scream and appear very frightened, and they may even get out of bed and run around.

Because they’re actually asleep, it can be hard to reassure or comfort your child during a night terror. They might not recognise you, and might even push you away or run away from you.

Don’t wake your child when they’re in a night terror, but wait for the terror to finish and then settle them back into bed.

Night terrors normally stop after 10-15 minutes, but they can last longer than this.

If the night terrors are happening at the same time each night and you want to break the pattern, you could try:

  • gently waking them about 15 minutes before that time
  • keeping them awake for a few minutes
  • then letting them go back to sleep.

Night terrors may sometimes be triggered by a change in the child’s environment. If your child has night terrors after you’ve turned off the lights and the TV to go to bed, try leaving on quiet music and/or a dim light. 

Lack of sleep can cause night terrors in some children. If you don’t think your child is getting enough sleep, try bringing your nighttime routine forward to get them into bed earlier.

Read more about nightmares and night terrors

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Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is quite common in children aged between four and 12, and often happens in the first few hours of the night.

When your child sleepwalks, their mind is asleep, but their body is awake. They may walk around with their eyes open, but won’t respond normally to you or to anything around them.

Stay calm if you find your child sleepwalking, and avoid waking them. Quietly and calmly guide them back to bed.

Most children grow out of sleepwalking. It’s a good idea to make the environment safe by:

  • removing anything they could trip over in tripping rooms and hallways
  • checking all doors and windows are securely locked so they can’t wander outside.

Teeth grinding

Lots of children clench their jaws, or gnash or grind their teeth in their sleep. They won’t normally wake themselves up with the noise, and in most cases, it won’t damage their teeth. Most kids will outgrow this.

Getting help with toddler and preschooler sleep

Lack of sleep can be very stressful for parents, and it can affect your health. You need rest too. Ask family, wh?nau, or friends for help – they may be able to watch your children so you can have a break.

If you're concerned about your toddler's sleep, talk to your Plunket nursem GP, or pediatrician for advice. You can PlunketLine any time, day or night, on 0800 933 922.

Need free support or advice?

Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922