How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?

Close up of family's feet under the sheets.

At a Glance

  • It is thought by most scientific bodies that children are not getting enough sleep across all ages.
  • Sleeping for the appropriate amount of time is crucial for children’s physical and mental development. Sleep deprivation in children leads to numerous chronic illnesses.
  • The American Academy of Sleep and Medicine has implemented sleep recommendations which state children should sleep between eight and 16 hours (depending on age), which have been agreed upon by The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Sleep Research Society and the American Association of Sleep Technologist.

The rapid physical and mental development of children can often mean they need significantly more sleep than adults. As parents how do we know whether our kids are getting too much or too little sleep?

It can be hard to tell when a child is lacking sleep due to the fact that drowsy kids don’t slow down like adults do. Tiredness manifests itself in kids as a burst of energy often resembling the symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder). Resisting bedtime and becoming more hyperactive as the evening goes on can both be signs of an overtired child.

Insufficient sleep for children may lead to various mental and physical problems including many potentially serious health issues.

While it is clear that sleep is important, there is no easy formula to calculate how much your child needs. Getting up fairly early, being alert and happy for most of the day and not being grumpy can be signs that your child is sleeping okay. In this article we’ll take a look at the question “how much sleep do kids need?” and come up with some guidelines.

Why Is Sleep so Important for Kids’ Health?

Sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but even more so for children. A lack of sleep in children can lead to obesity, diabetes, depression and behavioral or learning problems.

Younger children who don’t have a healthy sleep pattern can be irritable, seek constant attention and may not be able to concentrate.

Research in Finland studied children between five and six years old who got less than nine hours sleep a night. Findings reported they were three to five times more likely to develop behavioral problems or psychiatric symptoms. (source)

Sleep and the Effect on a Child’s Weight

Scale on wooden floor.

Studies have also shown that sleep can be just as important for children as a well balanced diet and exercise. Sleep deprivation can cause a child to crave and eat more sugary or starchy snacks to give them energy throughout the day.

Research has even shown that reduced sleep forms a vicious circle where fatigue leads to less physical activity and lower energy expenditure. This can lead to obesity and encourage poor sleeping patterns. (source)

Sleep Promotes Growth

Growth hormones are primarily released during sleep. Many parents are sometimes sure that their baby has got bigger overnight and they are probably correct! Babies especially need this extra sleep time, often up to 50 percent of their time, to ensure healthy growth.

Naps can affect growth spurts in an infant too. Research by Harvard University found that the probability of a growth spurt increased by up to 40 percent after each additional sleep. (source)

Sleep is an essential part of your child’s physical development. The change in hormones during sleep can stimulate bone growth which may explain the aching limbs that sometimes wake a child. They’re simply growing pains!

Sleep Can Affect Your Child’s Performance at School

During the school years, sleep becomes extra important for your child. Scientific studies have linked childhood sleep deprivation with attention problems, impaired memory function and academic problems.

The brain creates and strengthens memory at different stages of sleep. REM sleep (deep sleep) organizes and stores memories from the previous day and helps prepare for the day ahead. A shorter sleeping time can lead to less of this valuable REM sleep.

Sleepy children can also have problems with behavior at school and may have difficulty following their teacher’s instructions. Sometimes, the teacher may be so busy trying to control their behavior that the child misses out on learning. Their behavior can also be an obstacle when playing and socializing with other children, an important part of the learning process.

Teens Can Suffer Additional Problems if Not Getting Enough Sleep

Teenage years are an important stage of your child’s growth and development. Because of this, teens need more sleep than adults. The average teen needs about nine hours of sleep to feel alert and well rested.

Unfortunately, teenagers can be the most difficult groups when it comes to ensuring they get adequate sleep. Causes for their lack of sleep include peer pressure, busy social schedules and rapidly changing bodies. Puberty is often accompanied by a change in the circadian rhythms, the body’s internal clock.

These changes are known as ‘sleep phase delay’. Teenagers can have trouble sleeping at the usual time as the need for sleep is delayed by about two hours. With still having to wake for school, it can be challenging to ensure they get enough sleep.

Ignoring these changes can make an already difficult time of transition even more confusing for your child. Teens who suffer a lack of sleep can be more at risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and even self harm.

Recommended Sleep Times for Children

Close up of alarm clock, measuring how much sleep the kids got.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently released its sleep recommendations for children for the first time. The report recommended the hours of sleep in a 24 hour period a child should get for optimal health. The recommendations were as follows (source):

  • Infants 4-12 months old should sleep 12 – 16 hours
  • Children 1 – 2 years of age should sleep 11-14 hours (including naps)
  • Children 3 – 5 years old should sleep 10 – 13 hours (including naps)
  • Children 6 – 12 years old should sleep 9 – 12 hours
  • Teens of 13 – 18 years should sleep 8 – 10 hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Sleep Research Society and the American Association of Sleep Technologists have all endorsed these recommendations.

Not surprisingly, very young infants require the most sleep, often only waking for feeding. The sleep time of an infant can affect the whole household’s sleep – or more commonly, lack of sleep.

Naps in addition to nighttime sleep were particularly recommended for infants. Napping has been shown to make a difference in how much preschoolers learn and may also enhance learning in babies. (source)

The National Sleep Foundation claim that 85% of US teenagers are not getting enough sleep. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement in 2014, in an attempt to address the issue. This policy recommended that middle and high school classes start no earlier than 8.30 am to help pupils get the recommended sleep (source).

Sleep recommendations can give us a rough idea of what experts consider ‘normal’, but every child is an individual, with their own specific needs.

Before imposing any strict sleep schedule on your child you should assess what their individual needs are. Forcing a child to go to sleep when they aren’t sleepy can cause battles at bedtime and other behavioral problems.

Keeping a sleep diary for your child can help you determine whether your he or she is getting enough sleep. If you suspect your child has sleep related problems you can always talk with your pediatrician, who will be able to help.

Final Thoughts

Global studies have shown that most kids are not getting enough sleep. The intrusion of social networks, smartphones and tablets are often keeping kids awake at night.

By understanding how much sleep kids need, we can hopefully promote a healthier balance for our child. Good sleep practices learned in childhood may lead to a healthy adult sleep routine.

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