All new parents know the crushing exhaustion that comes with having a baby. Finding a good rhythm for this tiny person in their lives becomes an all-encompassing task, yet many parents underestimate the importance of sleep on their own short and long-term health. “Ensuring you get sufficient, restorative sleep is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family,” says Mary Foster, a certified sleep consultant and founder of Sleepy Lambs Sleep Consulting.
As the child grows, the obsession with sleep can fade, but that doesn’t mean that it is any less important. “Forming healthy sleep habits as a child will have a positive lifelong impact,” states Anneka Muir, a certified paediatric sleep consultant and creator of The Sleep Société. She and Mary both agree that sleep deserves the same attention given to eating a balanced diet, frequent exercise, and leading a healthy lifestyle.
Not getting enough sleep is linked with many chronic diseases and conditions. These include type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, impaired immune function, and mental health issues. Not only that, but it is critical to how children grow, develop, and even learn. Furthermore, the impact that a bad night’s sleep can have on overall mood is clear—you only have to watch a toddler melting down after they have missed a nap to prove that! Yet many sources claim that children are not getting enough sleep and that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted daily routines and further altered sleep habits. This is despite the need for healthy sleep being more important now than ever.
So, how much sleep do children really need, and how can parents make sure they get it?
Newborns and Babies
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that newborns need 14–17 hours of sleep in any 24-hour period and that babies up to 12 months need 12–16 hours. For newborns, this is split almost equally between naps (eight or nine) and night-time sleep. In fact, they are rarely able to stay awake for more than two hours at a time. This ratio will change as they grow until they are getting around 11 hours of sleep at night, plus two naps totalling around three hours.
“Often, parents wait for their baby or older child to exhibit sleepy cues before offering a nap or initiating bedtime,” says Anneka. “It is better to follow a set daily schedule and to keep track of a baby’s wake windows.”
Toddlers continue to need around 11 hours of sleep overnight, according to the CDC. You can expect them to transition to one 1.5 to two-hour nap per day.
“Sleep challenges in toddlers and young children are often behavioural, as they naturally test limits,” says Mary. She believes there are many fun and easy methods to help improve sleep with this age group, and (surprisingly to many) a lot of that work is done in the daytime.
Children usually drop their naps by the age of four or five. Their days become busier and more stimulating as they start school, and their learning environment becomes more challenging. Hence, it is important to help them get enough sleep. They also need to make up for the sleep lost from the nap. Therefore, the CDC recommends that preschoolers still get 11–12 hours of sleep.
Primary Schoolers & Preteens
Kids aged six to 12 years old need between 10–13 hours of sleep per night. Parents may find it increasingly difficult to balance sleep with everything else that is going on, like the introduction of homework, extra-curricular activities, greater independence, a more active social life, and later bedtimes.
Some school-aged children develop issues such as sleepwalking, sleep terrors, teeth grinding, snoring, and noisy breathing. If such problems persist, consider talking to a professional.
Most teenagers need nine to 12 hours of sleep. The tricky thing for teens is that their circadian rhythms naturally push them to fall asleep and wake up later when school start times in most places force them to wake up earlier.
Add to this their many obligations, including schoolwork, part-time jobs, hobbies, social lives, and family commitments, and it is easy to see how they end up allocating insufficient time for sleep. They may also suffer from excess stress and anxiety because of too much pressure from school, parents, and peers, leading to sleep problems.
Most have heard of the phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, yet parents often neglect themselves and their need for sleep. This is despite adults needing seven or more hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC.
Following good sleep habits is as important for parents as it is for kids. It is what is necessary to show up as good spouses, friends, employees, and…parents.
Tips and Tricks for a Good Night’s Sleep
“Remember that sleep is never linear,” advises Anneka. “I always remind my clients that they have never truly ‘arrived’ when it comes to their child’s sleep!” To her, sleep is much like health and fitness—you must stay focused and committed in order to stay on track.
What you do during the day and before bedtime can have a big impact on your sleep. This includes daytime activities, nightly routines, external stressors, what you eat and drink, and medications. But the good news is that you can see big changes by making slight adjustments.
“My best advice to parents is to make sleep a priority, as much as possible,” says Mary. She says when parents start understanding age-appropriate sleep needs and actively honour them, it can make a big difference.
“It’s not uncommon to see babies scheduled with many activities and classes that fall when they should be napping,” she observes. Both she and Anneka say that this can cause them to become overtired, and that can affect later naps and night sleep. It can even result in early wake-ups.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but more sleep can lead to more sleep! Anneka and Mary agree that keeping your child up later at night—hoping they will wake later the next morning—can actually have the opposite effect as it promotes a cycle of overtiredness.
“Signs of overtiredness include resisting bedtime, having trouble settling down and falling asleep, and waking up during the night,” advises Anneka. When a child is overtired, their body produces cortisol (a mild form of adrenaline) which makes it harder for them to fall and stay asleep.
Most doctors and sleep consultants recommend creating a consistent schedule. They suggest going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning.
It is important to remember to do this even on the weekends to avoid what the Mayo Clinic calls a “social jetlag”. This describes the difficulty people face when trying to get up on Monday mornings after the late nights and mornings of the weekend.
SleepFoundation.org says that children who follow bedtime routines are more likely to go to sleep earlier, take less time falling asleep, sleep longer, and wake up less during the night.
“Implement consistent routines for naps, bedtime, and morning wake ups,” suggests Anneka. “Do the same steps in the same order every single day.” She and Mary believe that following a repetitive set of activities every night will help your child wind down and remind their body that it is almost time to sleep. Adding things like a bath or shower, teeth brushing, a story, and dim lighting to the bedtime routine can also help. Although this looks different as they get older, the principles stay the same—even for adults!
A quiet, dark, and relaxing bedroom without too many distractions can help your child get a good night’s sleep. With smaller children, spend time during the day in their room playing and having fun, so they associate positive feelings with the area at bedtime. One of Mary’s favourite tips to help is cot, bed, and room play. “You want your little one to love where they sleep,” she says. “Laughter is key as it releases endorphins, and kids will associate their environment as a happy place to be.”
Other things that can help include using white or pink noise and keeping the bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Sleep Foundation says 65°F (18.3°C) is ideal, although this can vary from person to person.
Blue Light and Daylight
Blue light comes from the screens in our lives, and it reduces the amount of melatonin our bodies make. Melatonin is known as the sleep hormone because it is produced by the brain in response to darkness and helps with inducing sleep and staying asleep. Several reports highlight the negative effects of blue light, yet many people still use electronic devices before bed.
Experts suggest restricting screen time at least two hours before bedtime. For children and adults alike, they recommend removing all electronic devices— including TVs, computers, and smartphones—from the bedroom.
On the other hand, the opposite of melatonin is serotonin—a “happy” hormone that helps to keep us awake. So, sufficient exposure to daylight helps our bodies produce serotonin and regulate their production of melatonin. Not only is this a common remedy for jetlag, but it is also an important factor in maintaining a good sleep cycle in general.
Most people know that daily exercise has far-reaching health benefits, but not everyone knows it can lead to better sleep. Being active during the day and getting physically tired can help kids as well as adults to fall asleep more easily at night.
Food and Drink
“Nutrition and sleep go hand-in-hand,” says Mary. She says that signs of reflux or consistent discomfort are possible evidence of intolerances and allergies. Children can be intolerant to anything, but milk protein, soy, eggs, wheat, gluten, and citrus are some of the most common ones.
What you don’t eat is just as important as what you do eat, and so is when you eat it. Avoid large meals and caffeine before bedtime to maximise your child’s sleep health. With that being said, a snack before bed can stop young children from waking up because they are hungry. It should combine protein and carbohydrates—protein takes longer to digest, and this combination keeps their blood sugar stable.
While implementing this advice will help most families, as Mary says, “there’s no magic wand to improving sleep”! Persistence usually pays off, but if things aren’t improving, don’t suffer in silence.
“Despite what society wants us to believe, it doesn’t have to be this way!” Says Anneka. If you’ve tried everything and are really struggling, find a professional who can help.