Children and Sleep
Sleep is as important to our health and well-being as food and water, but most of us don't get enough of it. For children, sleep plays a critical role in their healthy growth and development. Beyond simply affecting children's moods, behaviors, and academic performances, insufficient sleep has also been associated with lower social skills and learning disabilities.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
When experts study the sleep needs of children, they consider the amount of sleep children need in a 24-hour period, including naps. Since every child is different, sleep charts are not exact; however, below are guidelines for different ages*:
- Newborns (0 to 2 months old): 12 to 18 hours of sleep each day
- Infants (3 months to 11 months old): 14 to 15 hours of sleep each day
- Toddlers (1 to 3 years old): 12 to 14 hours of sleep each day
- Preschoolers (3 to 5 years old): 11 to 13 hours of sleep each day
- School-Age (5 to 10 years old): 10 to 11 hours of sleep each day
- Teens (10 t0 17 years old): 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each day
- Adults: 7-9 hours of sleep each day
*From the National Sleep Foundation
Do these numbers surprise you? If so, you are not alone. Most parents are unaware of just how much sleep their children require in a 24-hour period.
Teaching Children Good Sleep Habits
Sleep habits—both positive and negative—are established early in a child's life, often in infancy, and families play a key role in the process. For example, in order to help your baby to stop crying, you might immediately pick up or feed your baby. In time, this may result in your baby not self-regulating and becoming dependent on someone else to help him fall asleep. Then, as he ages, his inability to fall asleep at night by himself could escalate into behavioral tug-of-wars involving “another glass of water” or “just one more hug,” which can leave all family members feeling frustrated and exhausted in the end.
The key, of course, is to help your child establish good sleep habits and self-regulation early. Here are some suggestions.
- Establish a schedule of the day’s main events, such as the same waking time, nap times, and meal times. Regular routines offer babies and young children comfort and security.
- Vary your child’s daytime activities, making sure they are interesting and varied. Be sure to include physical activities and outdoor activities as much as possible.
- Determine a simple bedtime routine that is well suited to your child, such as reading a book or talking for a few minutes about the day’s events.
- Use light to your advantage. Dim lights or close blinds and curtains as bedtime approaches. In the morning, open blinds and curtains to let in bright, natural light. Light helps signal the correct sleep-wake cycle in the brain.
- Take some time to determine your child’s ideal bedtime. For example, observe her over several evenings and note when she begins to slow down and act physically tired. That is the time she should be going to sleep, so plan to begin her bedtime routine prior to that time. If you wait beyond her ideal bedtime, she may become energized, and that’s when the “tug-of-wars”are likely to begin.
- Establish bedtime as a special time. It should be a time to interact with your child in a way that is secure and loving, yet firm. Go through the bedtime routine together, then it’s lights out and time to go to sleep.
If you suspect your child is sleep-deprived but are having difficulty establishing new sleep habits and routines, it’s time to take action. You may find the following to be helpful resources:
National Sleep Foundation (www.healthysleep.org)
- The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp, M.D.
- The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley
- Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep by William Sears, M.D.
- Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D.
- Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens by Judy A. Owens, M.D., and Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D