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Sleep FAQs: Why Do Children Need Sleep? How Much Sleep Do They Need?

why do children need sleepSleep is a vital part of our lives. For adults, when we don’t get enough sleep, we are groggy, cranky, and tired. Our concentration isn’t so great, and we are more vulnerable to infections and illnesses. Like adults, children also need to get enough sleep. Younger kids require more sleep than older children, and they may need naps during the day.

When a child is sleep deprived, it can cause them to develop behavioral problems and become very cranky and moody. Their performance at school may suffer, and they aren’t as alert as they need to be to learn. That’s why it’s very important that you help your kids develop good sleep habits at an early age.

Why Do Children Need Sleep?

If you’re a new parent, you may be wondering, “Why does my baby sleep so much?” The simple answer is that babies are growing, and studies have shown that sleep fuels physical growth.

The science of growing is complex, but a key player is the human growth hormone, which is secreted by the pituitary gland. There are many factors that affect the production of this growth hormone, but in young children, sleep is the most important of all. In children, the most intense period that the human growth hormone is released is after the child falls into deep sleep.

In fact, researchers have noticed a strong link between infant growth spurts and sleep. Babies tend to sleep longer, or have more bouts of sleep, when they are about to have a growth spurt.

For adults and children alike, sleep affects our cognitive processes. We become more irritable and less tolerant when we don’t get enough sleep. Just like your car needs a tune-up, the brain needs sleep to refuel. Although experts aren’t 100 percent sure, they believe that your brain sorts through and stores information about your day, it replaces chemicals, and solves problems during sleep.

The brain undergoes its own tune-up when we sleep. Dreams may have something to do with it, but experts aren’t really sure what dreams accomplish. But we do know that when we dream, the brain is very active. Some scientists argue that dreams help the brain reorganize and store psychological information from your day; others argue that dreams are a clearing-out process for the brain to help it replenish for the next day.

Whatever the reason, all children need their sleep so that they can grow and feel their best. As you know, kids can get pretty cranky and irritable when they don’t get enough sleep. Some even throw temper tantrums when they’re tired.

Another reason that children need sleep – it strengthens the immune system. When we don’t get sick, our T-cells go down and inflammatory cytokines increase, which means you are more likely to catch a cold or flu. Sleep deprivation basically suppresses your immune system.

Recent studies have also indicated that kids who have persistent sleep problems – like they have a hard time falling asleep, or staying asleep – are more likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders later in life. These children also are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs when they grow up, too. Children’s sleep problems are also linked to causing aggressive behavior, as well as learning and memory problems. 

How Much Sleep Do Children Need?

If you ask researchers about how much sleep a child needs, they’ll tell you that there’s no magic number. There is, however, a range of hours of nightly sleep that children need, depending on their age. Every child is unique and has different sleep needs. Some require more sleep, and others need less. Children need a lot of sleepeven more than you realize.

Sometimes, parents can confuse their child’s poor sleeping habits, refusal to take naps, or refusal to go to bed before 9 or 10 at night with the idea that their kids need less sleep, but this is usually not the case. Sleep experts believe that children can become hyper at bedtime due to sleep-deprivation. It’s overtired behavior.

As a parent, you’ll learn how much sleep your child needs by simply paying attention to your child’s behavior. If you’re asking yourself, “Is my child getting enough sleep?” Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child act irritable, cranky, or overtired during the day?
  • Does he or she often fall asleep while we’re riding in the car?
  • Do I always have to wake him or her up almost every morning? (He or she doesn’t just wake up on his or her own.)

If the answer is “Yes” to these three questions, this may mean that your child needs to get more sleep at night. Developing good sleeping habits, including sticking to an appropriate bedtime, may help your child get the sleep that his or her body needs.

Although researchers can’t pinpoint exactly how much sleep children need, there is a “rule of thumb” that many sleep experts have agreed on. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children generally need the following amounts of sleep:

  • Newborn Babies (Up to 2 Months): 12 to 18 hours of sleep a day.Newborns sleep in shorter periods at a time – probably between two to four hours, between feedings. Premies may need more sleep. Because newborns haven’t developed a circadian rhythm (internal biological clock), their sleeping habits aren’t regulated by day or nighttime cycles. Their sleeping habits typically don’t have a pattern. But they do spend a majority of their time sleeping (and of course, eating).
  • Babies (3 to 11 Months): 14 to 15 hours of sleep a day.

    By the time your baby reaches three months old, you may notice that he or she is developing more regular sleep patterns. He or she may sleep longer at one time – possible between four to six hours. Sleep also occurs more often in the evening hours now, as he or she is starting to develop a circadian rhythm.At 6 months old, babies typically are napping two to three times during the day, and they are physically able to sleep through the night. As their circadian rhythms mature, it’s helpful to establish a regular nap pattern for your baby.By 11 months old, your baby’s sleep patterns are similar to an adult’s, and he or she may only be sleeping 12 hours a day.
  • Toddlers (1 to 3 years old): 12 to 14 hours a day.After the first year of life, your child will probably nap once a day – in the afternoon – and sleep through the night. The afternoon naps may last between one to three hours long. Toddlers often go to sleep between 7 and 9 o’clock (depending on what time you decide), and they wake up between 6 and 8 in the morning. Although children in this age group need up to 14 hours of sleep each day, they typically only get about ten.
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5 years old): 11 to 13 hours a day.Once kids hit the preschool years, their naps will become gradually get shorter and shorter. By the time they reach age 5, many kids are no longer napping. Preschool-aged kids still go to sleep between 7 and 9 at night, and wake up on their own between 6 and 8 a.m.
  • Elementary School (5 to 10 years): 10 to 11 hoursa day.As children get older, their bodies require less sleep. Elementary school kids typically go to bed at a later time, around 9 or 10 p.m. Children in this age group typically get only nine hours of sleep each night, though their bodies actually need 10 or 11 hours.
  • Pre-teens and Teenagers (10 to 17 years): 8.5 to 9.25 hours a day.Once your child reaches the teen years, sleep is still important to their overall health and well-being. But social activities, team sports, and other responsibilities can sometimes get in the way of them getting enough sleep.

How to Promote Healthy Sleep in Children

A tired kid is a cranky kid, and with all the many negative consequences of sleep deprivation in children, it’s really important that parents step in and promote healthy sleep in their kids. There are relatively simple things you can do to ensure your child gets enough sleep.

For one, make sure that your children have a consistent bedtime – during the weekdays and on the weekends.

To help young children fall asleep, it’s a good idea to create a calming bedtime ritual. For example, you may want to read a bedtime story, or sing lullabies. Even taking a bath every night can become a ritual that helps soothe your child to sleep.

For older children and teenagers, you will want to limit their use of technology at least thirty minutes before bedtime. Research has shown that the lights from TVs and computers can suppress your body’s production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This can make it harder for your child to fall asleep. Plus, television, the Internet, video games, texting and using cell phones can be very stimulating to the brain, and this can also make it harder for an older child to sleep well. 


About the author: DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick’s Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • NordicComfort February 15, 2012, 6:43 am

    This post is a very comprehensive guide to understanding why children need to sleep so much. I particularly liked the point you made about how sleep fuels growth. This is true, and research is continually showing that there are a lot of benefits to getting into a great sleep pattern from early childhood. Did you know that there is a much lower risk for obesity if younger children get their sleep? It’s also important to note that different ages need to be treated differently.

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