We all know the foggy haze after a night of poor sleep, now think how sleep deprivation manifests itself in our children. Adults are somewhat predictable in demonstrating tiredness, but children may become hyperactive, unfriendly and/or labile. Preexisting conditions (ADHD, learning problems) can seem worse. For children, already trying to navigate frustration control, sleep deprivation can affect their behavior and learning. So, how much sleep do children need?
Here are some average sleep requirements divided by age. Don’t get too fixated on the numbers, instead look at your individual child. Is your 6 year old fresh and happy after 8 hours of sleep? They may have a low sleep requirement. Look at Mom and Dad and you will probably see someone who also does not need much sleep. Conversely, another 6 year old may fall asleep regularly on the way home from school after 10 hours of nighttime sleep. There is tremendous variability and these are just averages.
Newborn usually sleep between 16 and 20 hours per day. Unfortunately they like to spread it out equally between night and day. Usually by about 3 months, most babies will develop a 5 hour stretch-just in time to rescue their sleep deprived parents from psychosis! Many 3-4 month old babies will go as long as 6-8 hours which we count as “sleeping through the night”. Remember, babies should sleep on their backs in the first year of life to decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). If a baby under 6 months cries for more than a few minutes, it is time to go in and check on them. They have very few self-soothing techniques and they need you! Keep it quiet, keep it simple. Check the diaper, make sure they are not sick, and make sure they are not chilly or overheated. Put them back in the crib but they may need you again! You are not spoiling them and you will have plenty of time to make sure that they are good sleepers later.
Usually babies in this age group sleep about 3 hours during the day (divided in 2 naps) and about 11 hours at night. After 6 months, it is okay to let a baby cry for 5 minutes before you go to them. We need to give them the opportunity to develop self soothing techniques. After 5 minutes, go in and check them and comfort them by rubbing their back and talking to them, without picking them up if possible. You can pop the binky in if that is what is getting you through the night but just recognize that the baby won’t be able to find that little bugger (even if you spread 10 of them around the crib!) until they are about 9 months old. Try to avoid the pacifier if you can. Walk out and if your baby is still crying after 5 minutes, go back in and repeat the procedure. Stick with it for a week and most babies will learn to comfort themselves and go back to sleep on their own. Some will not and if your 8 month old is still waking up 6 times a night it is time to discuss this with your pediatrician. Trust me, it is much, much easier to teach a 9 month old how to sleep in a crib than a 3 year old in a toddler bed-don’t wait!!
Children in this age group usually sleep 10 to 13 hours in a 24 hour period. They are usually still napping once during the day (twice a day for some toddlers). Usually around age 2-3, the children move to the toddler bed. I have noticed that sometimes parents want to rush this. Please, if your child is not suggesting that they might crawl out of the crib, leave them in it!! Sleep problems almost always escalate when the child moves to the toddler bed, even if only temporarily. Throw in a little toddler defiance and night time can become very painful-even for the child who was once sleeping through the night. This can be a peak time for separation anxiety so some reassurance for your child may be necessary. Just keep it simple, keep them in their beds and try to be consistent. A special blanket or animal can really help some children. If the child has a bad dream, they may need you to stay with them and comfort them. If the bad dreams become frequent, be sure to reassess your child’s media exposure. Many videos for children actually deal with some frightening topics (loss of a parent, scary creatures, etc.) so pick carefully.
Preschoolers need about 10-12 hours per night which may or may not include a nap. Again, there is a lot of variability in ability to consolidate sleep. Some 4 year olds sleep 12 hours at night and remain fresh through the day. Others keep the night time sleep to 10 hours and preserve the daytime nap for longer. If you feel that your child no longer needs a nap, try to keep the “quiet time” intact. It is a great way for your child to unwind and practice their independent play. Additionally, it gives you a break to recharge for the rest of the day. Try to use a few minutes for something you enjoy before you jump into the laundry and phone calls. The bedtime routine becomes even more important at this age. Help your child gather a night time rescue bag filled with some things that they can use if they are having trouble falling asleep. Let them pick their favorite picture book, some soft music that they can start on their own and a small light. They are learning to help themselves fall asleep which is central to good sleep habits.
•School age Children
The average sleep requirement for our 6-9 year olds is about 10 hours per night. This is the age of the “bedtime bomb”. Your child who has been reticent all day about their school experience decides that bedtime is a good time to drop “the bomb”. She got in trouble with her teacher, he had a fight with a friend, etc. At the end of the day we are all tired and it is so hard to be patient, but it is good idea to work some time into the schedule to talk together. Although it may seem like a stall technique, this is an age where children really want some individual time and this opportunity for a teachable moment may not come up again. Once the child can read on their own we have a great opportunity to encourage independent reading. Most children want to delay sleep and telling them, “you can read quietly on your own or go to sleep” gives them a choice and incidentally helps them to practice their reading skills.
Many parents notice a drop off in the preteen years in how much sleep their children need. At 12 years old, the average sleep requirement is about 9 hours.
Most teens actually need more sleep than they previously needed. However, school and extra curricular activities usually prevent most teenagers from getting the sleep they need. Help your teen by avoiding over scheduling and helping them keep a semi regular sleep-wake schedule.