A guide to sleep needs for children of all ages

Child sleeping with cat

This guide on sleep needs for children tells you about the expectations for your baby, toddler, young child and teenagers – about naps, sleep habits, overcoming sleep problems and sleep tips.

As any tired parent will tell you, sleep is very important – and it’s important for the whole family. When we sleep our body re-energises and through dreams our brain processes life’s events.

If we don’t get enough sleep we feel ill-equipped to cope with daily life and can become irritable and emotionally sensitive. This is true for both children and adults. Even if only one member of a family is not sleeping well, the whole household can be affected.

The hormone that stimulates growth in children increases at night, so if a child is not getting enough sleep their development can be affected.

So how much sleep does a child need?

The amount of time a child sleeps can vary greatly, but here’s a guide for the amount of sleep an average child needs in 24 hours:

Newborn baby 16 hours
3 – 6 months 14 – 15 hours
9 months – 2 years 13 – 14 hours
3 – 5 years 11 – 12 hours
6 – 9 years 10 – 11 hours
10 – 14 years 9 – 10 hours
15 – 18 years 8 – 9 hours

The above times are only a guide; every child’s sleeping pattern is different. If your child is happy and healthy, then it is likely they are getting enough sleep.

Naps

A two to three-year-old may be difficult to read in terms of sleep needs. If they don’t need a daytime nap, i.e. they can get through the day without getting over-tired, then don’t push it. They may need a nap only every second or third day. This can be a bit disruptive and unpredictable if you’re trying to plan your days, but it’s a transition phase that passes quite quickly.

Overcoming sleep problems by using routine

It is easy for children to fall into bad habits – they may be difficult to get to bed or they may not stay in bed. They may wake in the night and not want to go back to sleep, or they may not want to go back to their own bed.

For a toddler there can be powerful motivation to stay awake. They may suffer some separation anxiety from their parents, or they may not want to miss out on what’s going on.

Some parents mistakenly keep a tired toddler up during the day, thinking it will make it easier to get them to bed at night. In fact, an over-tired child will get upset at bedtime and the chances of getting them to bed easily are greatly reduced.

Good bedtime habits are best established as an infant. Have a routine that helps your child relax – e.g. bath – story – quiet activity – sleep. Set a consistent bedtime and don’t let the nightly ritual last too long or get too complicated.

For older children with an active imagination, bedtime can provoke some anxiety if they are afraid of the dark or have had nightmares. Letting them turn on a lamp or night light can give them a sense of control, or they could have a torch beside the bed to turn on if they wake. A story tape or music CD played while they drift off to sleep can distract some children from anxious thoughts.

If your child repeatedly gets out of bed, patiently take them back and settle them again. Resist the temptation to stay in the room until your child falls asleep – this can also become a habit that is hard to break. Children feel more secure if they can learn to go to sleep on their own.

School age children may enjoy a bedtime ritual that includes a chance for a private chat with either (or both) parent. Children in this primary/intermediate school age group need about 9-11 hours sleep a night, but there are, of course, exceptions to this and you may have a child who needs more or less than this. If your child is irritable or exhibits hyperactive behaviour he/she may not be getting enough sleep. If you have any concerns about this you should consult your doctor.

Tips for overcoming sleep problems

  • speak calmly to a crying child, reassure him/her then leave the room
  • if the child continues to cry go back and reassure him/her again
  • keep going back until the child goes to sleep but stretch out the time between visits to their bedroom
  • it may take a few nights but the child will get used to the routine

Teenagers and sleep

Most teenagers don’t get enough sleep. At a time when their bodies are coping with growth – physically, mentally and socially – many are not adequately recharging their bodies and minds through sleep. They often have a steady homework load, commitments to sport, clubs or extra curricular activities and of course the lure of spending time with their friends. Added to this they have the demands of school and family life and some even fit paid work into the schedule. It’s no wonder they are among the most sleep-deprived groups in society.

Most teenage kids typically need 8-10 hours sleep a night, but research suggests many high school students are only getting around 7 hours. You’ll notice the signs – sleeping-in at weekends; irritability; sleepiness, lethargy, moodiness and reduced concentration.

Sleep deprivation limits the ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems. Teenagers who often find it hard to control their emotions can struggle further when short of sleep.

One NZ study of 9,000 high school students suggests that one in five is sleep deprived, and that this was more likely if the student had a part-time job working more than five hours a week.

But the tiredness is also physiological. At night we produce a chemical called melatonin which makes us feel tired. However, teenagers don’t produce this until late at night, causing them to go to sleep later than most people. This shift in “body clock” is well recognised but experts are unsure what causes it. Dr David Denny, an Auckland doctor who worked on the New Zealand study, says the shift peaks in a person’s early 20s and then in adulthood it slowly shifts back toward earlier bedtimes and waking times.

In the US some schools are starting classes later to fit better with teenagers’ sleep patterns. This approach has been picked up in New Zealand by Wellington High School which is allowing Year 12 and 13 students to start school at 10.15am with positive results. Some schools have linked this approach to an increase in grades.

A survey on the sleep patterns of adolescents (aged 11-17) released in March 2006 by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in the United States found that only 20% of adolescents got the recommended nine hours of sleep on school nights, and nearly one-half (45%) slept less than eight hours on school nights.

Irregular sleep patterns that include long naps and sleeping-in on weekends do not make up for lack of good sleep at night. In fact, they can reduce the quality of sleep at night and affect the biological clock of teens.

Caffeine and electronics play a prominent role in the sleep patterns of today’s teens. Many adolescents consume two or more caffeine-fortified drinks a day. Those who drink two or more caffeinated beverages daily are more likely to get insufficient sleep on school nights and think they have a sleep problem, according to the US study.

Technology may also be encroaching on a good night’s sleep. Experts advise engaging in relaxing activities in the hour before bedtime or to keep the bedroom free from sleep distractions. The US study reported watching television as the most popular activity in the hour before bedtime, while surfing the internet/instant-messaging and talking on the phone were close behind.

A warm bath or shower and a good book are better ways to prepare for sleep.

Teens need to give the brain better signals about when nighttime starts… turning off the lights – computer screens and TV, too – is the very best signal.

Tips for overcoming teen sleep problems

And, there are ways to make it easier for an adolescent to get more sleep and a better night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • Set a consistent bedtime and wake-time (even on weekends) that allows for the recommended nine or more hours of sleep every night.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading for fun or taking a warm bath or shower.
  • Keep the bedroom comfortable, dark, cool and quiet.
  • Get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning, but avoid it in the evening.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment by removing TVs and other distractions from the bedroom and setting limits on usage before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine after lunchtime.

Helpful Sleep Website

For more information and sleep tips go to www.sleepfoundation.org

Paula Skelton

Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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