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

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

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theresa

Hi there, I am at my wits end my partner of 16 years died 2 years ago and completing my fault have put my now 8 and 6 year in bed with me must probably at the time to make us all feel better but now am have the worst struggle ever to get them both back into theirs beds or should I say going to sleep in theirs beds by themselves pleeeeease he

Sally @ Kiwi Families

Hello Theresa. Your loss must have been difficult, but to have lingering effects such as your sleeping changes would make it hard to get back to ‘the new normal’. We posted your request for help to our Facebook friends and they have given a number of excellent ideas. I trust you will find something to try out in your family within their responses: https://www.facebook.com/kiwifamilies/posts/554900851235214
All the best to you.

Connie

Hi, my nearly 10 year old daughter wakes roughly around the same time every night. We have tried everything from bribes to sleep spray, but nothing has worked. She has been doing this since the start of this year and it’s getting to the point that myself and my hubby are getting really tired. I work nightshift so it’s really hard to get enough sleep as it is.

sera

One thing helps me with my two boys, and that’s to ignore them. Or rather not giving them the benefit of knowing i know they are awake. It seems to fuel their endless supply of energy. Sometimes i let them have a sleep out in the lounge, so rt of like a new and fun environment for them to sleep in. We also do the camp out/tent making in the bed room, sort of like a fort made out of chairs blankets sheets pillows and sometimes the bed. Can get as creative as you want and go crazy. Upto you… Read more »

Connie

How old are your boys sera? I don’t have any trouble with my nearly 7yr old son. I could ignore my daughter if she didn’t come into my room, making as much noise as she can to wake both myself and my hubby. We used to do the camp out thing in the weekends but then my son wouldn’t go to sleep then. I think it’s just habit now.

sera

My oldest is almost 10 and my youngest is 4. I use to have loads or problems with my oldest boy. I did try the spray as you did, but that didn’t help. Now we just do the camp out or sleep out, and i have no trouble with him anymore. He just crashes out like a light. and the nights they cant sleep together in the same room i just separate them in different rooms ie, eldest sleeps in his bed, and youngest sleeps in my bed till i go to my own bed, move him to his bed… Read more »

Rochelle Gribble
savage

I have a 6year old boy. He goes to sleep ok but during the night usually about 2 or 3 he wakes and comes into us or his sister (20 yr old) Ive tried the put him back to bed but now I dont wake up to him when he comes in as im to tried ( Have bipolar) Has anyone got any ideas?

Rochelle Gribble

Hi Savage,

I posted your question on our Facebook page and you might be interested in some of the responses… https://www.facebook.com/kiwifamilies/posts/400408216684479?notif_t=feed_comment

Thanks,

Rochelle

kiliyah

Hi, I have a 4yo, 5 next month son, he wakes at night about 10pm and just cries, and cries I ask him what’s wrong he says he doesn’t know, it takes about 10 to 15mins for him to go back to sleep just to do it again an again until maybe 5am an he stay’s asleep till 7.30-8.00am, this will happen about 3-4 times a week.  Does anyone have any ideas on what this is, an how to deal with it? Also he has night terrors so I have just found out from GP, but all the information i… Read more »

Rochelle Gribble

Hi Kiliyah, 

I don’t know if you found our page on nightmares / night horrors / night terrors etc… but it’s here: http://www.kiwifamilies.co.nz/articles/nightmares-night-terrors-and-sleep-walking/ 

Most children grow out of sleep issues (which isn’t much help when they are going through it, I know…). If you still have some support from CYFS, you may like to see if they can refer you to a psychologist? Your local hospital may also have a service that your GP can make a referral to. 

Good luck! 

Rochelle

kiliyah

Thank you for the reply, the GP just said he’ll grow out of it too.

Rochelle Gribble

Good luck!

Rochelle Gribble

Hi Kiliyah,

I consulted our sleep expert about this who says:

Generally speaking, Mums know their children better than GPs so if a Mum is still concerned that there’s something wrong with their child, I’d suggest seeking a second GP opinion +/- a referral to a Paediatrician.If it’s starting to affect the child during the day and impacting on his alertness (and therefore his learning and development), it’s worth pursuing.
Hope it’s getting better!
Rochelle

Wilddogizzy

I’m 11 and i get 7 hours of sleep on school nights.

Rochelle Gribble

Hi Wilddogizzy, 

That doesn’t sound like much! Do you get tired? 

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