How Much Sleep Do Children Really Need?

This is a question parents frequently ask themselves – and others. The answer is: it depends. The bottom line is there isn’t a magic number that fits all kids. The National Sleep Foundation provides some general age-related guidelines regarding how much sleep children need:

  • Newborns: Newborns sleep anywhere from 10-18 hours during the first couple of months for periods of a few minutes to several hours. Their wakeful hours may be 1-3 hours at a stretch.
  • Infants (3-11 months): Little babies sleep 9-12 hours at night, although it may or may not be in one stretch the first few months. They will also take 1-3 naps during the day that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
  • Toddlers (1-3 years): These tiny tykes need 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle, including naps. This means they may sleep 10 hours at night and take a 2-3 hour nap after lunch. Or they may take a two hour nap in the morning, followed by an hour or so after lunch, and cap it off by sleeping eight hours during the night.
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): These sassy little munchkins need approximately 11-13 hours a night. Some may even squeeze in a short nap in the afternoon, but don’t count on it after five years of age.
  • School-age (5-12 years): These kids really need to get 10-11 hours of sleep each night, although that can sometimes be challenging because of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities.
  • Teens (12-18 years): Teens need at least nine hours of sleep, but their natural sleep cycle doesn’t kick in until around 11:00 at night. This can be a problem for kids who have school bells clanging early in the morning.

What happens when a child does not get enough sleep?

When you really think about it the average kid has a busy life. In addition to long hours at school, there’s sports and extracurricular activities, lots of homework, chores, service projects, community work, and hopefully, socializing with friends when time allows. Plus, older kids often have part-time jobs.

Without enough Zzzzzs, the brain not only malfunctions making it hard to concentrate and follow directions, but children become really cranky and irritable creating mood instability and behavioral problems. Lack of sleep also lowers the immune system so that kids are more at risk for “cooties” and other nasty germs.

Common sleep problems

Develop a consistent bedtime routine and stick with it – even through the teen years. If your child is still having difficulty falling asleep after establishing a routine, you may want to consult with your family doctor. Sleep problems or disorders that you should watch for are:

  • Nightmares – most children have occasional nightmares. However, frequent nightmares can disrupt sleep patterns causing sleep deprivation. Usually these are caused by stress and/or anxiety, although certain food or medications can also cause nightmares.
  • Night terrors or sleepwalking – these disruptions usually occur in the early years of age and in the early hours of night. The child is both awake and asleep, and rarely remembers the incident the next day. Trying to wake and comfort the child during these episodes is not really helpful. Just make sure their surroundings are safe and they cannot injure themselves.
  • Reflux – this is when a child has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), making their stomach acid backup into the esophagus. This produces a burning sensation more commonly known as heartburn. The problem worsens when lying down and will definitely interfere with the sleep cycle. This is a medical condition that should be monitored by your family physician.
  • Sleep apnea – children with this disorder may snore, have trouble breathing, experience restless sleep, or sweat heavily during the night. Enlarged tonsils, weight problems, medication, or other problems can contribute to sleep apnea which disrupts a child’s sleep. There are many effective ways to treat this disorder, so see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.
  • Narcolepsy – this medical condition causes children and adults to be extremely sleepy during the day, and have uncontrollable “sleep attacks” that make them suddenly fall asleep wherever they are. This can happen even when the individual gets enough sleep at night. Naturally, school, sports, work and social activities are affected, and this condition should be diagnosed and carefully monitored by a physician.
  • Anxiety – one of the biggest issues that affect sleep is an anxiety disorder which affects one in eight children. A professional evaluation by a mental health provider can help determine if there is any cause for concern and provide you with an effective strategy.