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Sleep is not rocket science. We all need it. We know when we feel tired and that a good night rest would help us. It’s easy and natural.
Children’s sleep is a completely different story as they tend to become hyperactive when they are tired and they often fight sleep. You can’t be sure that a child will want to sleep when tired and their coping mechanisms are so well tuned that it’s easy to believe that they are full of energy, when in fact they are running on fumes.
Making sure that your child is getting enough sleep is very important for their overall health but also for some very particular aspects because lack of sleep can lead to serious health conditions that will reflect in the future adult.
The importance of sleep in children
Infants and children are very different from adults. They have a lot of growing to do, and their brain is developing at incredible speeds.
The younger a child is, the more sleep they need.
In children, sleep deficiency can lead to:
- Mood swings – If you have children you probably realized that a tired child is a bomb ready to go off at any second;
- ADHD like effects – when the child is hyperactive, has an attention deficit or becomes aggressive;
- Impaired immune function;
- Higher risk of obesity and diabetes;
- Bad emotional regulation in toddlers;
- A higher risk of developing allergies;
- Behavior issues like refusing to go to school, do their homework or do their chores;
- Higher risk of depression and anxiety;
- Impaired growth and development;
The brain activity is different during sleep. Even during sleep, the nervous system is at work creating new neural pathways, consolidating memories, and improving retention.
How much should a child sleep?
Before we answer this question, we need to address the fact that most studies were conducted on western populations, a large majority in the U.S. The lifestyle (including sleep patterns) is different in developed countries compared with developing countries.
Each child will have unique needs, so the numbers may vary a bit, and you should always think about your child as an individual and at the recommendations as simple guidelines.
Infants need a lot of sleep, up to 16 hours a day, but they could sleep as little as 12 hours.
During the first month after birth, they should sleep between 14 to 16 hours every day. After that, during their first year of life, they should sleep between 14-15 hours a day, with an average of three naps during the day.
Children from 1 to 3 years of age should sleep between 12 to 14 hours a day and they can start dropping their naps.
After 3 years of age and until they are 5, they begin to have a pattern similar to that of the adults, needing an average of 12 hours of sleep in any given day, but the true requirements could vary between 10 and 13 hours.
From 6 to 12 years children need between 9 and 12 hours, depending on the level of activity they are engaged on during the day and on their particular needs.
Adolescents, who are between 13 and 18 years old, need between 8 and 10 hours, but sometimes they might need as much as 12 hours of sleep, especially during growth spurts.
Is my child getting enough sleep?
Most children in the U.S. don’t get enough sleep. This usually happens because the modern schedule doesn’t allow for proper sleep, with schools starting early in the morning and requiring homework that tends to be done late in the evening.
However, there are other, controllable, reasons behind a child’s lack of sleep, which we will discuss in a few short seconds.
In order to determine if your child gets enough sleep, you need to look at the guidelines and see if your child sleeps on average the recommended number of hours. Then, look out for symptoms like:
- Attention deficit;
- Dark circles beneath the eyes;
- Problems with short or long term memory;
- Waking up grumpy;
- Having a lot of tantrums and meltdowns (some are completely normal);
- Waking-up often during the night (completely normal for infants);
- Trouble falling asleep;
- Being tired during the day.
If your child sleeps a bit less than the recommended hours, but has no symptoms of sleep deficiency, they simply don’t need as much sleep.
However, if you do notice that they are indeed sleep deprived, you should correct the problem as soon as possible, to prevent the problems from getting worse and to establish a good sleep hygiene that will help them stay healthy even much later in life.
How can you help your child sleep better?
The steps to a better sleep for your child are not complicated, and you are probably already familiar with most of them.
- A routine
The brain absolutely loves routines. But the brain of a child depends on them because, as infants, they need to know what is going to happen next.
Later on, a well established routine will help them fall asleep easily by the power of habit.
Make sure that the routine involves some unwinding and no device that emits light, especially the blue one that comes from screens, because it interferes with sleep.
Going to bed at the same time everyday is also important, as it will help the circadian rhythm.
A routine, no matter what it implies, was proven to prolong sleep duration.
- A comfortable room temperature
This factor may not be easy to control at all times, but when it is, you should take advantage of it.
A room temperature between 68° and 72°F is ideal and, contrary to popular belief, warmer is not better.
- Plenty of sunshine
Make sure that your child spends as much time as possible outside.
- Create the perfect sleeping space
Even if light can be an enemy of sleep, some children are afraid of the dark, and a nightlight would help them a lot. But, make sure that there are no screens turned on while the child sleeps and that the night light is mild and warm.
Keep in mind your child’s particular preferences, and adapt them to your family.
Children’s sleep can be challenging, and if they have problems, these can sometimes be scary and complicated. It is important to be able to recognize them and to know when you need to talk to a specialist.
Sleep Problems in children
This is probably one of the scariest sleep issues that you can see in a child. Night terrors are a form of parasomnia (just like sleepwalking is). It affects one-third of children and it translates into a bad dream that is acted out.
Some children have their eyes opened and scream, hit, bite and even run. All you can do is make sure that your child is safe and won’t get hurt. Do not attempt to wake them up and wait it out.
The good news is that children eventually grow out of night terrors.
Snoring and sleep apnea
Snoring suggests an underlying problem and you should always talk to a doctor if your child has any trouble breathing.
Restless legs syndrome
This is a condition that is hard to spot because many parents believe that their child is simply having an agitated sleep or growth pains.
It is important to write down your child’s symptoms and if possible even film them. You can talk to your doctor about this, as some studies show that iron supplements might help with this problem.
Sleep is a very important part of life and we should all be able to get good sleep. But for children it’s absolutely vital because not getting enough sleep can lead to a series of consequences that will affect their wellbeing, and to bad sleep habits that will stay with them until adulthood and beyond.