Modern society makes it difficult for children to get enough sleep. If youngsters are left to themselves, they may fight off sleep in order to do things they think are more fun. If the whole family does things together, including spending evenings together, that, too, may deprive young people of sleep. Why? Because young people—even into their early 20s—need more sleep than do adults. It’s too easy for children to try to adapt to adult sleep patterns or for adults to impose “eight hours” on their children, even though adults are the only age group that manages well on 7-9 hours’ sleep.
How much sleep do children need? As a parent or caretaker, you may already have a good idea, but since everyone fits into a range, the best starting place for you is to ensure you, as an adult are getting enough sleep consistently. If you have “found your own sleep number,” the hours of sleep that leave you consistently refreshed and energized, so that you don’t need to sleep more than an hour late on the weekend, you’ll be in the best position to help young ones around you find their own ideal sleep time.
You begin with good sleep hygiene. Lights out, preferably a gradual dimming from bright light to darkness—perhaps dressing for bed with only a small lamp showing the way. To bed the same time every night and awaking about the same time every morning. Quiet, of course, is also essential.
Infants’ needs vary the most. One newborn sleeps only 10.5 hours while another sleeps 18. By the time a baby is three months old, on up to 11 months, its need for nighttime sleep has dropped to 9-12 hours. But a 3-11 month old baby also needs naps ranging from half an hour up to two hours and as many as four times a day, depending upon their duration.
Toddlers from a year old through three years old may actually sleep longer at night than a baby under a year, again, depending upon whether the child does better with or without a nap. These one, two and three year olds will be the happiest when they are getting 12-14 hours of sleep a night.
Preschool children may have a more difficult time than babies in getting enough sleep. They may do more things with their parents, including going to evening events where their quality of sleep is disrupted. They need 11-13 hours of sleep, and just like adults, they will do better if it occurs at the same time every night.
The amount of sleep humans need declines from birth to adulthood, but schoolchildren, ages 5-12, may not be getting enough. They require 10-11 hours of sleep a night. Once “school” enters the picture, parents need to be more attentive to getting children to bed early enough. School starts early, and depending upon the morning routine, a fifth grader getting up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready for school may have to go to bed by 7:00 or 8:00 pm. A child in the 6th grade may feel it’s “babyish” to go to bed by 8:00, but the required rising time may determine what works best for the child.
Before talking about teenagers, I want to point out that if your child is whiny, or throwing tantrums long beyond an age when he or she should have outgrown them, you may not be dealing so much with bad behavior in the children but in the parents! Sleep deprivation can make a kid seem like a problem child, in addition to having trouble concentrating on school work and homework. Poor test performance can also be an indicator a child is tired or even exhausted.
Teenagers pose a special challenge in helping them get enough sleep. Physical changes in their bodies—shifts in their circadian rhythms—are responsible for making the stay awake later at night. No, it isn’t just a desire to party, party, party. In these formative years, teens have a lot to accomplish. They are building their physical bodies and training themselves with athletics, while also absorbing vast quantities of knowledge of their world. They are assessing adulthood and the kind of adult they would like to be. They pursue extracurricular interests and find hobbies they may pursue for life. Social development requires long hours of talking, evaluating and reevaluating. Perhaps that’s why their bodies keep them awake. Did I mention homework and cramming for exams?
But teens need 8.5 to 9.25 hours sleep. So their same circadian rhythms make them want to sleep later in the morning. You may think you have a sullen, uncooperative teenager on your hands when it comes to getting them up for school in the morning. On the other hand, you may have a kid that needs understanding schoolmasters that set classes later. This is a trend in high schools that teens really enjoy. Sometimes there’s only one late-starting day per week, such as Wednesdays. At least the kids can sleep late weekends and midweek, instead of grinding down to nothing by Friday and sleeping all weekend only to do it over again the next week.
Twenty-percent of teens are reported to fall asleep in school. Teens who are not getting adequate sleep should not be allowed to drive, because the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimates that 1,500 people are killed annually in crashes caused by tired drivers 15-24. More than half of the drivers who cause crashes because they fall asleep driving are under 26.
Moodiness, lack of cooperation, resistance to getting up in the morning, poor test performance, inability to pay attention, poor grades and depression can all be traced to sleep deprivation. If your child is getting enough sleep, never wants to sleep late, and has any of these symptoms, please seek professional help.