Children and Sleep: Keeping Up With Changing Needs by Ellie Porter
A child’s sleep schedule can be a hard thing to figure out. As soon as you think you’ve got it nailed down, she switches it up and keeps both of you awake late into the night. Babies are infamous for changing their sleep schedule or eating habits overnight. What I didn’t know when I first had children was that unexpected changes in routine would become a constant. Rather than becoming comfortable in their predictable nap schedule, I learned to enjoy what we had and to expect change around every corner.
The Early Years
As unpredictable as they may seem, children do go through developmental phases where they require more or less sleep. It’s not unusual for newborns to sleep 14 to 17 hours a day. A few exceptionally sleepy infants may hit up to 19 hours and still be considered completely normal.
Newborns are unpredictable because their circadian rhythms, the biological cycles that control sleep-wake patterns, aren’t fully developed. They may only sleep for two to three hours at a time in a regular 24-hour time period. Again, that’s very normal. When she reaches 6 to 12 months old, she should be sleeping about 14 hours a day with two to three naps. As your infant gets closer to twelve months, she should start sleeping for longer stretches at a time until she’s sleeping through the night.
The toddler years can be hard on sleep schedules. Budding independence along with growing separation anxiety can make bedtime a battleground. Your child will still need 12 to 14 hours of sleep with one or two daily naps.
However, at this age, there’s more you can do to help establish their circadian rhythms. Two of the most important steps you can take are to establish a regular bedtime and to follow a consistent bedtime routine. A bedtime routine that’s started at the same time each day helps your child calm down before bed while signaling the brain to release sleep hormones.
It’s also at this age when comfort becomes an issue, both emotionally and physically. Comfort objects like a blanket or stuffed animal can help your child soothe herself back to sleep when she wakes during the night. Check to make sure there aren’t any physical discomforts like tags on pajamas or the mattress that could be causing nighttime waking.
Preschool-age kids need about 11 to 12 hours of sleep. It’s around this age that your child will stop taking naps. If you haven’t already helped your child develop healthy sleep habits like a regular bedtime and bedtime routine, it’s definitely time to start. You can also start to limit their screen time two to three hours before bed. The bright light from televisions and iPads mimic daylight and can prevent the release of sleep hormones.
School Age and Teenagers
Once your kids hit their school-age years, they still need 10 to 11 hours of sleep. If you keep up with healthy sleep habits, including a healthy diet free of stimulants like caffeine and plenty of exercise, your kids have a better chance of getting the rest they need. Adequate sleep is an important part of their academic, social, and emotional development.
While teens need eight to ten hours of sleep, it’s at this age that they’re least likely to get it. School start times, activity schedules, and a change in sleep pattern called sleep phase delay wherein their sleep cycle starts and ends two hours later make it tough to get adequate sleep. Those good sleep habits you taught when they were young can still be effective when they’re teens. A regular bedtime, bedtime routine, no screens, and a healthy diet can all help your teen get the rest she needs.
Sleep isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. While your baby might prevent you from getting all the rest you need, as you work towards teaching good sleep habits, you’ll both sleep easier.