By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. Sleep, sleep, dear sleep. How do I keep my boys (age 3 and 5) asleep at night?

A. The question that parents ask us most often is how to help their young children fall asleep and stay asleep. It may be no coincidence that, on average, adults now sleep two hours less per night than they did 40 years ago.

Inadequate sleep interferes with learning, memory and attention. It has been linked to irritability, behavioral problems, and poor academic performance.

Poor sleep also may lead to obesity. Hormones that regulate metabolism are secreted in amounts that vary with the sleep-wake cycle. Disrupting the cycle throws off these hormone levels.

In our hurried-up, round-the-clock world, a number of factors can keep children from getting all the sleep they need.

Street light seeps through shades and shutters, interfering with sleep. Blackout curtains can help.

Noise pollution is on the rise: more cars, trucks, buses, ambulances, fire engines, garbage trucks, planes and trains. In cities, the noise goes on all night long. Parents and teachers will need to fight for ordinances that ban late-night honking, truck deliveries and garbage collection. Quiet electric buses and cars would help, too. A “white noise” machine may muffle the sudden unpredictable sounds that come through the walls just as a child is about to fall asleep.

Parents can start by controlling the home environment. If your children are very sensitive to sights and sounds, cover the light-up digital clocks and other electronic equipment in their room. Shut the door of any room with humming machinery – like the dishwasher or the washing machine.

Supper time can be a nightly family reunion, a clean break from the day. After supper, reducing the stimulation of TVs, computers and video games can help children and parents unwind. Children can start relaxing for bed: no more running around, phone calls and bright lights. Quiet activities – a bath, a few stories, a lullaby – slow the rhythm and help your children settle down. Soon they will associate this reliable routine with relaxation and rest.

Bedtime isn’t for dawdling. Don’t give in to requests for “one more story” or “one more glass of water.” Instead, tell your children that if they are ready for bed – teeth brushed, faces washed, under the covers at the expected time – they can choose three short bedtime stories. Remind them that if they don’t stay on schedule, they will lose a story, one at a time.

Without knowing your children’s sleep habits, it’s hard to know why they are waking up. If they share a bedroom and one child is waking the other, you may need to separate them for sleep if you can.

Children this age are capable of sleeping through the night on their own. If the problem persists, we suggest you check with your pediatrician about medical problems that can interfere with sleep, such as asthma, allergies and sleep apnea.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center.  Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.