- How Sleep Works
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- Sleep Medicine
Growing children need different amounts of sleep depending on their age. This ranges from the 12-16 hours required by infants to the 8-10 hours preferred by teenagers. However, the way children sleep changes over this period as well, providing new challenges during each phase of development.
Some changes to the way children sleep are invisible, such as the decline in REM sleep from 50-80% of babies’ sleep time to 20-25% of the sleep time in adults. Others, such as the circadian rhythm delay seen in teenagers, make it more challenging to get enough sleep and may be cause for concern. Sleep disorders are more likely to start appearing in children and teenagers.
Government-recommended ranges for the amount of sleep each age group needs are the first step in helping your child get enough sleep. From there, the best course of action is to provide structure around sleep and to refine all suggestions to your child’s unique sleep needs.
Just as an eighteen-year-old eats differently than an infant, so too do they have different sleep needs. As we grow, the way we sleep (called our sleep architecture) changes, and we require different amounts of sleep in different ways.
As children grow, they spend more or less time in specific sleep cycles, stop napping in the afternoon (in countries without a siesta culture), show changes to their circadian rhythms, and spend less time asleep overall. It is this last point which is often most obvious to parents.
From our current understanding of each age group’s sleep needs, the government suggests an ideal amount of sleep for each age range.
|Age Group||Recommended Sleep Length|
|Infants (Up to 12 months)||12-16 hours (including naps)|
|Toddlers (1-2 years)||11-14 hours (including naps)|
|Preschool-Aged (3-5 years)||10-13 hours (including naps)|
|Children and Pre-teen (6-12 years)||9-12 hours|
|Teens (13-18 years)||8-10 hours|
However, it is more difficult than you may think to discover how much sleep any one age group truly needs. This is partially due to problems with studying sleep in children (particularly those who are pre-verbal) and partially due to sleep length being only one element of “good sleep”.
For example, research has shown that an altered sleep schedule (late bedtimes and late wake times) is associated with children exercising less and having a tendency towards obesity. This was true regardless of how many hours they spent asleep. Regular bedtimes for children also show an effect on BMI and sleep patterns as they age into teenagers.
Of course, that does not mean that sleep length is unimportant, only that parents should remember that their child may have sleep needs unaddressed by official guidelines.
The feeling that our children are not sleeping enough is not a new one. For the past century, experts have raised concerns about the discrepancy between the recommended amount of sleep and the sleep kids are achieving.
The research seems to back up these concerns. One extensive research analysis (which covered 690,747 children from 20 countries) showed that children slept 45 seconds less each night for each year over the past 100 years. This number was highest for older male children on school days. While 45 seconds may not seem like a long time, over a century this totals nearly an hour and a half less sleep per night.
Teenagers have their own, separate problems with sleep deprivation. In fact, 72.7% of students in grades 9-12 report sleeping for less than 8 hours a night — a number which may be even higher, as teenagers are known for overestimating how much they sleep.
While the problem of childhood and teenage sleep deprivation is a concern, education and knowledge of the sleep needs of your children is a good first step in ensuring they are met.
The government-recommended sleep range for infants is 12-16 hours, including naps.
It’s common sense that infants need more sleep than older children, but helping them achieve this can be a struggle for some parents. In addition, the way they sleep — their sleep architecture — is significantly different than even that of toddlers.
How well a baby sleeps, as well as how often and for how long, is initially determined by biology. However, by the age of 6 months, there are clear indications that nurture has begun to play an important part as well. These first six months play a critical role in ensuring later sleep health, as most sleep variables (how well they can sleep) show very little change from 6 to 12 months.
Just as babies are dependent on us to teach them how to eat, so too do they rely on us to teach them how to sleep. Circadian rhythms (the natural cadence of our biological functions, including sleep) develop after birth, and caretakers must aid this development by putting them to bed and waking them up at appropriate times.
We also teach our children how to fall asleep again after waking. For the few months of their lives, infants are likely to wake up after a sleep cycle is complete. Most infants have a sleep cycle of approximately 47 minutes, meaning that they must fall back asleep again. They learn how to do this through the ways we help them sleep in the first place: rocking them, comforting them, and touching them. Infants mimic these actions with self-soothing behaviors.
To help your child learn these skills, consider these tips:
As mentioned earlier, infants have unique sleep architecture. During sleep, all humans pass through a series of four sleep stages; stages 1 through 3 are non-REM and include the deep-sleep stage 3, while REM sleep is when we dream. While most adults spend 20-25% of their time asleep in the REM stage, babies are in REM sleep for 50-80% of their sleep time. During their first six months, babies also lack the neurological barrier which keeps people from “acting out” their dreams, so that they can twitch, move, and even stir from sleep.
Sleep stages in babies are often qualified as quiet sleep (non-REM) and active sleep (REM sleep). The non-REM, quiet sleep stages in adults are usually seen at the beginning and end of sleep cycles, but infants are more likely to have active/REM sleep stages closer to the beginning of when they sleep.
All of these differences underline the importance of REM sleep for infants. The reason for this seems to reflect the primary reasons babies need to sleep so much overall: preparing their brain for learning, consolidating the memories of learning done while awake, and processing stimuli while asleep.
There is evidence that sleep aids the formation of memories and learning even in adults, but infants have a uniquely vast amount to learn. It is understandable, then, why they have a greater need for sleep’s brain-caretaking qualities.
Ongoing research is also providing greater proof for the importance of infants learning while asleep. In one experiment, babies were taught through stimulus while asleep to distinguish between vowels sounds, a discovery which shows there is still much to learn about infants and sleep.
The government-recommended sleep range for toddlers is 11-14 hours, including naps. They recommend 10-13 hours, including naps, for preschool-age children.
Toddlers have similar sleep needs as infants and similar reasons for those needs. Not only are they learning about their world (often in new ways, such as running and actively playing), but they are also still learning how to sleep. Toddlers often learn by testing limits, which accounts for the uptick of bedtime battles at this age.
The answer to these nighttime scuffles is two-fold:
Toddlers tend to show that they are sleepy by laying down, rubbing their eyes, pulling their ears, staring off into space, and yawning. However, they can also become more active, cranky, fussy, and prone to biting or otherwise acting out.
Instituting family rules around bedtime is a technique which shows great benefit even through the teenage years (see below), but toddlers in particular have a deep need for routine. In one study of children between 3 and 5 years old, those with good bedtime routines showed better results in a wide range of areas.
This age is also when fear of the dark can develop. Fears like these are a normal stage of development, with children becoming afraid of dark rooms around the age of two and usually remaining fearful until they are approximately four years old. Other normal nighttime fears include bad dreams, monsters, and separation.
While an ordinary part of growing up, these fears can be very upsetting to both your child and your family, particularly if they interfere with sleeping. Positive routines and coping mechanisms can help most toddlers, but do not be afraid to speak to your doctor for advice if the fears are extreme or continue to interfere with your child’s sleep.
Toddlers, like infants, tend to sleep in two stages: a long sleep at night, then one or more shorter naps during the day. Shifting to sleeping once a day is a major milestone, but one which is usually not reached until they are five years old (or older). Kindergarten and preschool children tend to sleep for approximately the same amount of time at night, and it’s this loss of napping which accounts for the drop in sleep requirements.
Napping cannot be substituted with longer sleep at night, and missed naps can have a dramatic impact in many areas.
In one study, toddlers between 2.5 and 3 years old who missed their afternoon nap were more anxious, less happy, less interested, and had poorer problem-solving abilities. They became frustrated more easily and responded negatively to events while showing less enthusiasm for exciting events.
Missed naps also make it more difficult for toddlers to remember what they have learned. Researchers have shown that 3-year-olds who napped were more likely to remember and understand their language lesson the next day than those who did not nap. It is likely that this is related to sleep’s help in consolidating and making sense of memories and new information.
Finally, missing a nap also impacts a toddler’s nighttime sleep. In the night following a missed nap, toddlers tend to fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply than those who slept during the day. While this may appear to be a good thing, it is instead a reflection of the deep need toddlers have for an afternoon nap. It is possible that those who miss their nap do not recover from the sleep deprivation even after their nighttime sleep.
The government-recommended sleep range for children and pre-teens is 9-12 hours.
By the time children are old enough to enter school, their sleep architecture is beginning to take its adult shape:
However, some similarities to the sleep of infants and toddlers remain. For instance, they still spend more sleep in the REM stage than adolescents and adults, with a longer delay before moving to the next stage in their sleep cycle. They also require more sleep: 9-12 hours, with younger children requiring more sleep than their older peers.
As with toddlers and babies, school-age children benefit from a non-negotiable bedtime with a positive, relaxing bedtime routine. To see the greatest benefit from these tactics, experts say parents should resist allowing for a later bedtime on weekends or during the summer. Everyone, from infants to adults, functions best when their schedule does not change over the week or year.
If your child has good sleep hygiene but otherwise has problems around sleep, there is the possibility they have or are developing a sleep disorder. This is the age when some children develop these disorders, some of which may be lifelong and some of which are likely to be resolved by adolescence.
Common sleep disorders among children include:
Treatment is available for childhood sleep disorders. If you are concerned about your child’s sleep health, take notes and speak to your family doctor.
One modern problem for childhood sleep is technology use. While this may also be a problem among younger children and continues to be an issue for teenagers and adults, childhood is when the issue usually becomes apparent.
By fifth grade, 40% of children are likely to have their own cell phone. This reflects the massive upswing in the access children have to mobile devices (and other screen-based technology), with a five-fold increase in access between 2011 and 2013.
While there are benefits to children owning a cell phone, there are significant drawbacks to using screen devices (television, computers, tablets, and cell phones), particularly before sleep:
There is a significant correlation between technology use and sleep disruption, but this does not mean that technology use itself is to blame. However, it is certainly worthwhile to examine the potential impact of your child’s pre-sleep technology use and help them develop healthy technology habits.
The government-recommended sleep range for teenagers is 8-10 hours.
As teenagers approach adulthood, they go through a period during which their sleep architecture is significantly different from both that of children and adults. This period begins at puberty, which may occur before or after the actual start of the teenage years. With interrelated psychological and physiological impacts to sleep health (described as a “handshake between biology and behavior”), the teenage years can be a sleep minefield.
To begin with, puberty appears to cause greater feelings of daytime sleepiness regardless of sleep length. Unlike children, teenagers are unlikely to wake up in the morning without being woken, and may show signs of being tired during the day even if they had a full night’s sleep.
Most of the changes in teenage sleep architecture are based around their circadian rhythm (see below), with sleep stages otherwise showing as a halfway point between the sleep architecture of children and adults.
Sleep disorders are also common among teenagers. While some childhood sleep disorders tend to taper off at puberty, others are more likely to develop at this age. If you are concerned about your teenager’s sleep, your family doctor will be able to help whether or not they suffer from a disorder.
Lifestyle changes in teenagers play a major role in whether or not they get enough sleep. Part-time jobs are an exciting milestone, for instance, but research has shown that teenagers tend to lose 14 minutes of sleep a night for every ten hours worked in a week. Extracurricular activities like team sports can also impair sleep.
Although teenagers require a certain amount of freedom to develop, family rules around appropriate bedtimes are still useful. Even if teenagers do not follow these rules, they are happier and better-rested than their peers with less parental guidance on sleep.
The times when we sleep are governed by something called circadian rhythms. In most people, these are a 24-hour schedule influenced by an internal clock, called the circadian pacemaker.
Between puberty and adulthood, the circadian alerting system changes and cause most teenagers to become “night owls” whose bodies want to fall asleep later and wake up later. Lifestyle choices can exacerbate this, but overall it is a natural part of human development.
The actions of melatonin can explain part of this change. This hormone is secreted by the pineal gland and plays a major role in deciding our circadian rhythm, since the high levels produced at night are part of what prepares us for sleep. In teenagers, these levels peak at a later time than in adults, and it is difficult for teenagers to fall asleep before this spike. Similarly, higher levels of melatonin remain later into the morning, making waking up a challenge.
In an effort to “make up” for having to wake up early during the week, many teenagers sleep in on the weekends. This difference can be as large as 1.8 hours:
|Average Weekday Sleep||7.6 hours||7.3 hours||7 hours||6.9 hours|
|Average Weekend Sleep||8.8 hours||8.9 hours||8.8 hours||8.4 hours|
Unfortunately, changing sleep schedules on so regular a basis further confuses their circadian rhythms and makes weekday sleep that much more difficult. Additionally, sleep debt (the difference between actual and ideal sleep amounts over time) cannot be repaid in this manner.
To help your teenager navigate their circadian rhythms and get enough sleep, consider these tips:
Sleep plays a critical role in the caretaking of the body and is an important element in health no matter your age. Children, however, have different sleep needs which reflect how they are growing.
While it is difficult to determine a precise range for the ideal amount of sleep, particularly in pre-verbal babies and toddlers, government recommendations provide a useful starting point. Of course, it is most important to tailor any recommendations to your child and their unique needs.
When children are very young, teaching them to sleep is mostly practical: showing them, through our actions, when to sleep and how to soothe themselves enough to fall asleep on their own. As they age, they begin learning through rules and guidelines around sleep, such as strict bedtimes and whether or not they are allowed to use technology before bed. This does not change even when they are teenagers, as those with parents who set bedtimes were happier and better-rested than their peers.
Sleep is a complex topic, and despite exciting research there is still much we do not know. Parents can navigate this — and help their child do so as well — by remembering sleep’s importance and focusing most on their child getting enough sleep to feel their best.
Raising children can be overwhelming, particularly when it’s a struggle for them to get as much sleep as they need. Follow the links below for more information on childhood sleep, as well as our favorite products for sleeping better.