Almost every parent struggles with their child’s sleep from time to time, whether they’re trying to establish an appropriate bedtime or get their kid to wind down and relax at night.
But it’s important to get sleep habits right, especially for kids. “Sleep is important in the process of growth and development in children, says Allison Siebern, PhD, a Fitbit sleep expert and consulting assistant professor at Stanford. “There is more deep sleep going on in childhood through adolescence. Deep sleep is when the growth hormone is released.”
When kids don’t get enough sleep, they may have a range of health effects, says Amy Wolfson, PhD, author of The Women’s Book of Sleep and a Professor of Psychology at Loyola University. “The immune system is compromised, catching infections becomes easier,” she says. “There’s an increased risk for weight gain and type-2 diabetes early, the cluster of metabolic problems. On the safety side, they are more accident prone; when they become able to drive, teens are at the highest risk for sleepy driver accidents or falling asleep at the wheel”, she says.
There are also mental health and cognition issues associated with poor sleep. “Irregular sleep or sleep deprivation also puts you at risk for depressed mood,” she says. “I often have parents close their eyes and think of the last time they were exhausted: You become more irritable, you tend to ruminate more, and so on. For kids, if they’re not healthy in all other realms, this will also impact academic performance, executive functioning, and school attendance and tardiness.”
New advances in sleep research
Sleep issues may stem beyond basic health and wellness, into more specialized conditions. Most recently, researchers have been looking at links to other health issues like ADHD. “There is more recognition showing that with behavioral issues such as attentional problems and hyperactivity that sleep may be part of the picture,” says Siebern. “More sleep screening is starting to happen when there is a behavioral issue present.”
In addition to young children, adolescents also have unique sleep needs and issues — they still need more than adults, but may struggle to get it. “Adolescents start to have more infringing on their schedules in terms of being up earlier for school, having after school activities and homework that can infringe on bedtime,” Siebern says. “They may also become night owls due to a hormonal shift.” Experts have noted that instead of getting drowsy in the evening, the reverse happens: They feel more alert and they’re less able to get to sleep.
Thankfully, schools and government are slowly starting to take note of a young person’s need for sleep, says Wolfson. They are starting to listen to researchers. “As we speak, there’s a bill on Governor Brown’s desk that may make California the first state in the nation to regulate that no school can start before 8:30AM,” she explains. This would help combat that shift in their internal clock.
So, what’s the magic number of hours for great sleep?
Siebern likes to use the numbers below for ideal hours of sleep, with a caveat: “It’s important to recognize these are typical ranges, but there can be individual variation in sleep need in both children and adults,” she explains. Meaning, your child could need more or less.
- Newborns 0-2 months – 16-20 hours
- Infants 2-12 months – 9-12 hours, 2-4.5 hours in naps
- Toddlers 12 months – 3 years – 12-13 hours
- Preschool aged 3-5 years 11-12 hours
- School aged 6-12 years 10-11 hours
- Adolescents 12-18 years 9-9.5 hours
You can even simplify it, for slightly older children. From elementary school to adolescence, which ranges up to age 21 in the sleep world, there’s less variability in sleep needs than you might think, says Wolfson. “Based on repeated research, the recommendation is typically 8.5 to 9.5 hours, regardless of age,” she says. “The mean for sleep needs is 9.2 hours.”
Ultimately, you should check on signs that they are well-rested. “Pay attention to what the child is getting and how they are functioning during the day,” says Siebern. “If a school-aged child appears sleepy during the day, it is an important sign they are not getting enough or sleep quality needs to be assessed. Some signs that children are not getting enough sleep can include irritability, acting out, appearing wired or hyperactive.”
Also, be aware of other symptoms of poor sleep, like migraines. You may want to check in with your child’s school, says Wolfson. They might be checking in with the nurse or their teacher about having headaches. “Older kids might fall asleep in class,” she says. “Younger kids, especially around middle school when school start time is moved up, might experience behavioral issues.”
Establishing good sleep practices
Wolfson says it’s important to stop caffeine three to five hours before bedtime, which means “no soda on the dinner table.” Having regularity with bedtime and wake times can also really help your child establish a healthy sleep routine. Also, institute a “wind down” time an hour before bedtime. This might include weaning them from devices like smartphones and tablets, as well as darkening rooms as they get ready for bed.
Siebern says you can also have kids, as it becomes age appropriate, begin to listen to their bodies, noting when they feel tired or anxious, teaching them to use “deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation,” she says. “Come up with ways the child can limit ‘curtain calls’ if they need parent to reassure them at nighttime.” Learning to relax their bodies is key.
And this is the biggie: “Practice emphasizing the value of sleep in your household,” says Wolfson. That means you get enough rest, too. You are your child’s sleep role model.