Children and Sleep

Mary Sweeney - Updated on March 22nd, 2023

Sleep Is Important At All Ages

Sleep is a necessity throughout the human lifespan and is a vital process in the growth and development of children of all ages. So, if it’s so important, why can it be such a challenge to get our kids the sleep they need? 44% of school-aged children aren’t getting the sleep that they need to grow and function optimally – that means their health and academic success may be affected. Sleep cycles differ slightly in different age groups, so below you’ll find a breakdown of each age group and how you can help your child get the sleep they need.

The Sleep Cycle

Before we delve into specifics, let’s review the sleep cycle. There are two types of sleep, NREM and REM sleep. We go through several cycles each night that include both types. The first type is non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep – we spend most of our sleep time in this stage. This is where our immune system strengthens, our heart rate and blood pressure lower, body temperature drops, and we get our most restorative sleep. NREM sleep is responsible for that wonderful, refreshed feeling you have when you’ve had a full night’s sleep. The second type of sleep is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep follows the 3 stages of NREM sleep and is where your heart rate and breathing become faster, your eyes make rapid movements, and you dream. During this stage, most of your body’s muscles are paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams. But don’t worry, the important ones like your heart and diaphragm are still up and running as they should be!

No matter what age we are, the sleep cycle works in the same way. Where adults and children differ, however, is in the amount of sleep and number of sleep cycles necessary for optimal daytime functioning. The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, but for children that number is significantly different. Check out the sleep needs of kids based on age below, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Infants 4 to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
  • Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis
  • Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours

Age Group: 0-1 Year

The birth of a new baby is a joyous, albeit exhausting, experience. During the first two weeks of life, an infant sleeps for approximately 18 hours per day, waking up only if they’re hungry or uncomfortable. After those first two weeks, all bets are off and the games begin! Let’s talk about infant sleep issues.

The obvious. If your baby is waking in the middle of the night, it’s likely that they are either hungry or wet. Rule out the obvious with a diaper check and a bottle/nursing session.

Acid reflux and gas. According to UpToDate, up to 50% of infants between the ages of 1-3 months will have some degree of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), commonly known as “acid reflux". This can manifest as “spitting up” after a bottle or nursing session. Make sure you are burping your infant regularly. If you are formula-feeding, consider switching to a gentler formula designed for acid reflux. Gas pains are another common issue in infants – they seem to come in waves and can be very painful for your little one. Burp your infant after a few minutes of feeding, and consider switching to a bottle that reduces the amount of swallowed air. Gas medicine, also known as “gas drops” can also be very helpful and can be given to infants as young as newborns. However, be sure to consult your pediatrician to rule out any other digestive issues.

To swaddle or not to swaddle? In the first few weeks of life, the feeling of being outside the womb can be startling and upsetting to an infant. Think about it: you’re going from a nice, warm, cozy home to the cold, bright outside world. To help lessen the shock, swaddling your baby may help them to feel more secure, thus helping them to sleep easier. If they’re a Houdini and continually try to escape, don’t force it – it’s not a requirement and some babies may not need it.

Age Group: 1-3 Years

If infancy proved to be a challenge with sleep, toddlerhood can be just as much of one. There is an immense amount of change occurring in your toddler’s body and mind, and many of those changes can affect their sleep quality. Let’s talk about some common sleep issues in toddlers!

Separation anxiety appears. If your previously perfect sleeper is now screeching like a hawk when you leave the room, it may be because they want Mommy or Daddy to hang out for a while. At some point during toddlerhood, your little one may feel insecure unless you’re directly next to them – and that’s perfectly normal. The key here is to reassure your child that you are nearby if they need you and that you’re not going anywhere. Talk in a low, reassuring voice but try not to talk too much: you don’t want them starting a full-blown conversation in the middle of the night! Giving your child a “lovey” like a stuffed animal or favorite blanket may be a good substitute for Mommy and Daddy in the middle of the night.

They don’t want to miss out. Toddlers can suffer from major FOMO (fear of missing out) just as adults do. Why should they have to go to bed when you get to have all the fun? It can be senseless to a child that they must leave their toys downstairs and go to bed, while you get to play with toys and watch TV. Reassure your child that their toys will be available first thing in the morning and stand your ground that it’s time to go to bed.

Their imagination is running wild. A closet door may be just a closet door, but to your child it’s the doorway to a room where monsters live. A shadow on the wall may now be a ghost, and that fan may now be a scary loud machine. This is also the point where your child begins to dream, and a vivid imagination may cause a few nightmares here and there. Be sure to reassure your child and explain items or noises that may be causing alarm.

That pesky cold is back. Stuffy noses or an annoying cough may be the reason your child isn’t sleeping. Using a cool mist humidifier can be a relief to dry, scratchy throats and stuffy noses. Consider propping your child up on a pillow if he or she is the recommended age and it’s safe to do so. For fever, aches or pains, consider an age-appropriate dose of Tylenol or Motrin. Consult your doctor for the recommended dosage.

Pacifier down! Pacifiers can be both a blessing and a curse in these early years. As infants, pacifiers are an effective way to calm and soothe your baby and may prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). However, after the age of 6 months, pacifiers are no longer necessary and may become a “crutch". Consequently, a fallen pacifier in the middle of the night can be devastating to your toddler. If you find that a missing pacifier is causing frequent wakeups during the night, it may be time to consider weaning your child from it.

Age Group: 3-5 Years

Monitor screen time. Current screen time recommendations for this age group include no more than 1 hour of supervised activity on a device per day. Try to stick to this recommendation, and make sure that the hour of screen time isn’t happening right before bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens can interfere with the body’s natural production of melatonin, which can make it more difficult for your little one to fall and stay asleep.

Keep a consistent routine. You’ve likely heard that establishing a bedtime routine is incredibly important in infancy and toddlerhood – and it doesn’t stop there. Set a bedtime that you can stick to on a regular basis, read stories, sing songs, and have a little quiet cuddle time before bed. Kids crave routine and consistency, and having a routine will help your child to get quality sleep each night. However, don’t freak out if there are nights you can’t stick to it 100%. There will always be exceptions, and a few nights here and there won’t make or break your child’s sleep pattern.

Consider dropping the afternoon nap. At this point, your child may be ready to drop the afternoon nap (much to many parents’ chagrin). If your child isn’t tired or is refusing to nap, don’t force it. Instead, tell your child that he or she doesn’t have to go to sleep, but they are expected to be in their room for [insert length of time you’d like here], and they can read or play quietly. “Rest” periods can still be refreshing to your child, even if they aren’t napping.

Age Group: 6-12 Years

Screens off. At some point during this age group, many children are likely to have their own devices (tablets, cell phone, etc.). Set ground rules early on, and consider having your child store their device overnight in another room of the house that’s not their bedroom. In addition to teaching them moderation, you’ll also be cutting down on that pesky blue light emission, preventing any melatonin production issues.

Early to bed, early to rise. Bedtimes for this age group can vary – be sure you are setting a bedtime that accommodates your child’s sleep needs. At this age, school start times can be early! Keep that bedtime routine going and keep the bedtime consistent.

Balance. Schoolwork and after-school activities can sometimes run long into a school night, keeping children up later than they need to be to finish up last minute homework or reading. If you find that your child is struggling to stay awake in school or is falling behind on their academic performance, talk to them! Evaluate the number of activities they’re participating in to see if there’s any room to cut back.

Childhood is full of changes, both mental and physical. A quality night’s sleep can help your child thrive in their daily life, and can also set the stage for good sleep habits in adulthood. Hopefully our guide has given you some good insight into how to make that sleep a reality! For more information, see the below references used in the creation of this guide.

References And Continued Reading