Sleep, like many things in life, is an individual experience. Just think about how much sleep you need versus your spouse. Or whether you thrive on late nights while your partner crashes early then rises before the sun. As adults, we accept these differences. With children, though, we worry. “Adults tend to burn both ends the candle and live pretty sleep-deprived lives,” says Michael Goodstein, M.D., clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State University. “Babies, on the other hand, auto-regulate sleep like they do food.” Meaning if they need it, they’ll get it and if they don’t, they won’t.
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That’s not to say kids bodies all work perfectly to give the child what they want. Most kids’ sleep needs fall within a range that experts deem necessary in order to accommodate the important developmental changes that happen largely during periods of rest and if they are straying far from the guidelines, parents need to act.
How much sleep do newborns and infants need?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends newborns (0-3 months) get 14 to 17 hours of sleep and infants (4-11 months) get 12 to 15 hours. Why do newborns and infants require so much sleep? “Mostly, because they are growing so rapidly,” says Dr. Goodstein. “A baby doubles in size in the first six months, and triples in size by one year. It’s a critical period of development, and sleep plays a crucial role in allowing these changes to take place.” The good news is that during the first 12 months, sleep is just another reflex and in most cases babies will meet their sleep needs instinctively.
How much sleep do toddlers need?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends toddlers (1-2 years) get 11 to 14 hours, preschoolers (3-5 years) get 10 to 13 hours, and kids from 6- to 13-years-old get 9 to 11 hours While sleep needs decrease as kids get older, school-age kids still require more than adults do (9 to 11 hours versus 7 to 9 hours). That’s partly due to the emotional and mental growth happening during this stage of life. “The brain is a relatively immature organ. It doesn’t finish developing until you are a young adult,” explains Dr. Goodstein. Much of this development occurs during sleep hours.
How much sleep do young children need?
It’s unlikely in very young children that too little sleep will be a problem. “If you have a baby sleeping only 10 hours, something else is going on with his health,” says Dr. Goodstein. Pain is one major reason for sleep insufficiency in young kids. “Gastrointestinal issues are a common problem we see that interferes with a child’s ability to sleep,” he says. If your little one is struggling to get within an hour of the recommendations, talk with your pediatrician.
For older kids, sleep is less of an involuntary reflex and sometimes a battleground for control. (Who, me? Bed now? No way!) It’s just as important for your 6-year-old to meet her sleep needs as it is a 1-year-old. “Sleep deprivation in older kids has negative connotations,” says Dr. Goodstein. “We know it is associated with issues including obesity and delayed cognitive development.” If your school-age child is falling below the minimum sleep recommendations, try the stealth approach, moving their bedtime forward by 15 minutes a night, for several nights in a row. (Of course, what this really means is beginning their pre-bed routine 15 minutes earlier, since it’s the wind-down to lights out that makes or breaks the ease of drifting off.)
And while you’re at it, look at your own sleep schedule. Seven hours may sound like a non-parent’s fantasy, but sleep deprivation manifests itself in ways beyond simply feeling sluggish: One study suggests getting behind the wheel after a single sleepless night gives you the same decision-making powers and reflexes as a drunk driver.