Tots' Sleep Differences Due to Genes, Environment, Study Suggests

But parents should still try to correct bad sleep habits, expert says

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"We know that with adults, there's a lot of individual variation in how much sleep a person needs," Montgomery-Downs said. So children, too, may vary in how much sleep is enough, she said. But the research isn't there to know for sure.

There are things parents can do to help their little ones sleep at night, Touchette said. In one study, her team found that 5-month-olds were less likely to sleep for six straight hours at night when their parents fed them each time they woke.

Staying with your child until he falls asleep and picking him up each time he fusses are not good ideas, either, Touchette said.

Setting routines, including a consistent bedtime and a soothing activity such as reading a story, is important, Montgomery-Downs said.

Many parents try to keep their toddler awake during the day, thinking that will help them fall asleep at night. But that can backfire, she said, since overly tired kids may become irritable or hyperactive. "We know that nap deprivation is not good," she said.

If your child refuses to nap, however, you can't force him, Montgomery-Downs said. For a 3-year-old, it may signal that he's outgrown his need for an afternoon snooze. And the general rules are the same as for bedtime: Set up a consistent, quiet sleep environment and see what happens.

More information

The National Sleep Foundation has sleep tips for parents.

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