Sleep and Circle of Security Concepts

Sleep and Circle of Security Concepts

Evidence needs to guide every decision we make in the health and education sector.  And now, more than ever, research findings are clear that children do best when they have strong and connected relationships with the adults who are supporting and caring for them.  

It’s all about the relationships

Strong relationships help children to build a sense of security so they can conserve their energy and grow to their potential. When children feel anxious and insecure, they are constantly watchful for what may happen and feel they need to protect themselves from harm.  

As Health Professionals and Educators what can we do to help build strong connections?  

You’re already doing a lot when it comes to building connection with the children and parents you work with.  One of the most valuable frameworks to base practice on is Circle of Security, also known as COS.

When attending to a child’s needs it helps to understand how the child sees their world.  It’s always a good start to take time to think about the child’s perspective and what they might be feeling.   Making decisions based around maintaining the quality of the relationship between you both will also help.

Circle of Security – a reminder

The way a child is responded to will affect them throughout the rest of their life. More securely attached children feel confident because they know someone they trust will come to them when they need help.  This sense of connection helps children to believe that the world is generally safe and predictable.     

The COS concepts most helpful to keep in mind

Working in the health and education sector means you have a lot in your mind however, these concepts are worth remembering:

  • Be the secure base – each child needs you to support their exploration, watch over them, help them, enjoy experiences with them and delight in them. Being a secure foundation also extends to sleep and settling times.
  • Be a safe haven – children need you to welcome their return back to you.

As a child, I need you to

  • Protect me
  • Comfort me
  • Delight in me
  • Help me to organise my feelings
  • Always be bigger, wiser, stronger and kind

Why sleep times are a great way to build relationships

The concepts of COS don’t stop once a child is going off to sleep. In fact, sleep and settling times are a peak time in a child’s day and night when it’s an important time for children to feel safe. They also take up a lot of hours in a child’s day (and night) so sleep can’t be excluded from other peak care and connection times.

Without feeling secure, children can’t relax and allow themselves to be vulnerable.

How is children’s sleep different to adults’ sleep?

Babies and children have much shorter sleep cycles and sleep more lightly than adults do. Around 40 minutes is the average sleep cycle for babies and children, whose brain is immature and still forming networks. 

As children drop off to sleep, they cycle through stages of light then deep sleep (quiet sleep), then they dream during a phase of sleep known as REM – Rapid Eye Movement. Babies spend a lot of their time in REM – this is when active sleep happens. 

It is normal for children to wake up during their sleep.  As they transition between stages of light sleep and wakefulness, they will often wake up and need help to go back to resettle back to sleep. This is common especially when a child has needed help to go to sleep at the start.

Adults also wake up during sleep periods, as often as every 1.5 hours, as they transition from sleep to wakefulness.  Though unlike children, adults don’t need the same high level of support to drop off to sleep. We manage our own settling periods independently by going to bed, pulling up the covers, turning off the light etc. We don’t need our parent or caregiver to pat us off to sleep and offer us milk each time we wake. Though there was a time for all of us, when we did need help.

What’s important to remember as a Health Professional and Educator?

Use the COS framework to better read the emotional needs children, especially when they are tired and ready for sleep.

As Health Professionals and  Educators, keep attachment at the forefront of your mind and you’re more likely to make the right decisions.

  • Think about the child’s emotional needs and what is behind their behaviour. Are they showing tired signs through their crying and emotional ‘meltdowns’?
  • Consider where a child is on the circle, e.g., on the top or the bottom.
  • Always be the bigger, wiser, stronger and kind adult. There will be times when you need to ‘take charge’ and make decisions based on what’s right for the child. For example, they might want to keep playing when it’s clear they are tired and need to sleep.
  • Care well for your own emotional needs. You cannot give what you haven’t got.

Circle of Security when it’s sleep time

As Health professionals and Educators, you are already experienced in sleep management.  The COS concepts will help to understand a child’s emotional needs at a particular time and the way they may be communicating these needs.

Consider if the child 

  • Is just spending a little time exploring their sleep space and feels secure, or, do they need your help?
  • Seems to be able to manage their own emotions or do they need your assistance? Remember, small people can have big feelings.
  • Needs their self-esteem boosted. Use language which is supportive and nurturing.


Try to keep the same pre-settling routine when settling for sleeps. Make sure the child is clean, dry, comfortable and not hungry when you’re settling them. Look after their physical as well as their emotional needs.

5 key points

  1. Acknowledge your own expertise and wisdom. You can’t be bigger, stronger, wise and kind if you don’t believe you are.
  2. Children do best in situations where they feel safe and emotionally connected.
  3. Every child is different and will have their own unique needs.
  4. Be consistent in your responses, this will help build the child’s sense of security.
  5. Reach out for support if you need it.

About the Author:

Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry. Jane has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing. She is a member of a number of professionally affiliated organisations including AHPRA, The Australasian Medical Writer’s Association and Australian College of Children and Young People’s Nurses. 


Circle of Security and Attachment Theory (

Circle of Security International – Early Intervention Program for Parents and Children

Infant Sleep Cycles: How Are They Different from Adults? | Sleep Foundation

Infant/Toddler Resource Guide | Early Childhood Training and Technical Assistance System (

Sleep & sleep cycles: babies, kids, teens | Raising Children Network

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