How much sleep do our children actually need?

We spend a large proportion of our time worrying about how much sleep our children are getting, working out how to try to get our children to sleep, handling our own lack of sleep, reminiscing about all the sleep we used to get pre-children, and working out strategies to get more sleep post-children (we have recently discovered cBeebies in the morning on the weekend – it usually guarantees us another hour in bed before tummies start rumbling – heavenly).

I am generally incredibly lucky, all three of my children are pretty good sleepers and have been from a pretty early age.  I assure you there is no smugness in this statement – after having had a newborn who did not sleep at night at all for the first three weeks I acutely feel the pain of parents whose children do not go to sleep easily. Even so, my children’s sleep patterns have changed over time.

For a while now my almost four year old son has started to get up most days at around 6am (far too early in my book).  He goes to bed at about 7pm and usually falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.  But often, by the end of the day he is exhausted (yes, that is him asleep sitting upright at the table during dinner).  If he has a nap during the day, however, it will mean that he does not go to sleep until much later at night.

Meanwhile my nearly six year old has started staying up until 7.30pm/8pm reading, and gets up between 6.30am and 7am most mornings.

My one year old is the best sleeper of all (touching a lot of wood as I write this – tempting fate on this sort of thing is really unwise).  He currently has a good two or even three hour nap during the day and then will sleep for another twelve hours at night (though to be fair we do not know exactly how much sleep he actually gets as the baby monitor is broken and he tends to just amuse himself in his cot until someone comes to get him – the forgotten third child).

So what is the current thinking on sleep requirements and when and how does this change as our children get older? ” All these changes made me wonder how much sleep our children actually need and how their sleep needs change as they get older. I recall reading somewhere, whilst pregnant with my first, that babies and small children need twelve hours sleep at night for their brain development. Not only has the guidance on this probably changed eight or nine times since then (alongside the guidance on eating salami whilst pregnant – do not get me started on that one), but it also presumably applies to children of a certain age. So what is the current thinking on sleep requirements and when and how does this change as our children get older? Is it important for them to have one long block of sleep or are the sleep patterns more important?

According to the NHS there is no set amount of sleep that all children of a particular age need.  But they provide guidance on approximate sleep patterns that we should aim for depending on their age:

Age Daytime Night time
1 week 8 hours 8.5 hours
4 weeks 6 – 7 hours 8 – 9 hours
3 months 4 – 5 hours 10 – 11 hours
6 months 3 hours 11 hours
9 months 2.5 hours 11 hours
12 months 2.5 hours 11 hours
2 years 1.5 hours 11.5 hours
3 years 0 – 45 mins 11.5 – 12 hours
4 years 11.5 hours
5 years 11 hours
6 years 10.75 hours
7 years 10.5 hours
8 years 10.25 hours

 

Even though there are no set rules, it is clear that babies, children, and teenagers need significantly more sleep than adults to support their rapid mental and physical development. Missing as little as 30 to 60 minutes of sleep time can apparently have important consequences for children.

But we all know that each child is different and we as parents all have different lifestyles.  I need my children to be ready to get up by 7am as I have to get them out of the house by 7.30am.  Working backwards from this, I need to make sure that they are in bed by 7pm.  In contrast, parents who work in the home and who do not necessarily need to have their children ready to go until 8.30am, will not be bound by these timescales in the same way.  Or parents who work until later in the day and who still want to see their children may prefer a later bedtime.  Do these differences matter?[/vc_column_text]

An early bedtime works best for babies and children up to school age.
Research shows that an early bedtime (between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.) works best for babies and children up to school age.  According to the Sleepsisters (certified sleep consultants Dr. Debbie Freidman Sasson and Melissa Freidman Zdrodowski) the time your child goes to sleep makes a very real difference. According to them our sleep improves the closer our sleep patterns reflect our natural sleep/wake cycle.  So getting to bed at the right time matters. Consistency is also key.  They refer to research from the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, which indicates that “…maintaining a consistent bedtime (and wake time) helps keep our internal clock “set” and is a critical part of healthy “sleep hygiene”“.

According to the Sleep Foundation, children struggling to get to sleep can be helped with changes to the environment and habits surrounding bedtime.  For example a consistent, soothing, wind-down routine with no screen time — such as TVs and tablets — is thought to lead to better sleep.

So, it seems to me that the message is this: children need lots of sleep, a consistent sleep pattern, a calm lead-up to bedtime, and a reasonable bedtime.  Their sleep needs get less as they get older.  And I guess for the rest you just have to go with what works best for you and your child.

If you want more information on children’s sleep patterns/routines see:

NHS sleep booklet

NHS sleep tips or children

NHS general children’s sleep page

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2 Comments
  • Jeff Page (Hectic-Dad)
    Posted at 14:36h, 01 December Reply

    Having raised eight kids and now having a grandchild I can’t stress enough how important it is to remember that each kiddo is different and will have different sleep needs and patterns. Even our twins were on different schedules. The other thing to remember is that as a parent you’ll live through it. You’ll be questioning how much sleep YOU need…but you’ll have time for that later!

    Congrats on getting the blog live! Enjoy the journey and thanks for sharing this post.

  • Amy Simmons
    Posted at 11:55h, 02 December Reply

    love the pic…at least he hasn’t got his face in his dinner! x

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