Sleep is of paramount importance to young children. Early in life, a person experiences tremendous development that affects the brain, body, emotions, and behavior and sets the stage for their continued growth through childhood and adolescence.
In light of this, it’s normal for parents to want to make sure that their children, whether babies or young kids, get the sleep that they need. After convening a panel of experts to review the existing research, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) formulated recommendations for total daily sleep needs by age.
|Age Range||Recommended Hours of Sleep|
|Newborn||0-3 months old||14-17 hours|
|Infant||4-11 months old||12-15 hours|
|Toddler||1-2 years old||11-14 hours|
|Preschool||3-5 years old||10-13 hours|
|School-age||6-13 years old||9-11 hours|
These ranges are for total sleep including at night and during naps. The NSF’s experts noted that these are broad recommendations and that an hour more or less may be appropriate for some children. Parents can benefit from using these guidelines as a target while recognizing that a healthy amount of sleep may vary among children or from day to day.
As these recommendations demonstrate, sleep needs evolve as a child gets older. An array of factors can influence the proper amount of sleep for babies and kids, and knowing these details can serve parents who want to encourage healthy sleep for their children.
Babies spend the majority of their day sleeping. The normal amount of time that babies sleep depends on their age.
The NSF recommends that newborns spend between 14 and 17 hours sleeping every day. Because of the need for feeding, this sleep is usually broken up into a number of shorter periods.
While the bulk of total sleep happens at night, it’s rare for newborns to sleep through the night without waking up. To accommodate feeding, nighttime sleep segments, and daytime naps, parents often work to develop a rough structure or schedule for a newborn’s day.
Parents should be aware that fluctuations in sleep patterns for newborns can occur and do not necessarily indicate a sleeping problem. For this reason, the American Association of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have chosen not to list a recommended amount of sleep for babies under 4 months old.
Guidelines from the NSF state that infants (4-11 months old) should get between 12 and 15 hours of sleep per day. AASM and AAP guidelines, which recommend 12-16 total hours, closely track those of the NSF. It is normal for infants to sleep for 3-4 hours during the day.
Babies spend more than half of their time sleeping because this is a period of substantial growth. Sleep allows the brain to develop, building networks and engaging in activity that facilitates thinking and learning as well as the formation of behavior. Sleep and nutrition also allow a baby to develop physically, growing bigger and acquiring better motor skills.
It is very common for babies to nap and obtain a meaningful portion of their total sleep during the day. Newborns often nap for at least 3-4 hours during the day, and though total nap time decreases as they get older, it’s typically for infants to continue to nap for 2-3 hours or more each day.
This napping is not just normal but also beneficial. Research has found that frequent naps allow infants to consolidate specific memories. In addition, naps enable a more generalized memory that is important for learning and brain development.
For adults used to sleeping for 7-9 hours each night without interruption, having a baby can be an eye-opening experience. Even though newborns and infants spend most of their time asleep, they rarely sleep through the night without waking up.
In general, it is thought that babies start to consolidate their nightly sleeping period at around six months, making it more likely for them to sleep through the night. At the same time, research has found that the date of this milestone can vary significantly. In one study, a considerable number of six- and twelve-month-old babies did not sleep either six or eight hours consecutively at night:
|Age||Percent Not Sleeping 6+ Hours Consecutively at Night||Percent Not Sleeping 8+ Hours Consecutively at Night|
While parents often worry if their child takes longer to start sleeping through the night, this same study found that there were no detectable impacts on a child’s physical or mental development if they weren’t able to sleep for these longer consecutive periods as an infant.
Over time, parents should expect their child to start sleeping for longer segments at night, but to date, the importance of sleeping through the night has not been shown to be more important for infants than total daily sleep time.
That said, there are steps that parents can take to encourage longer periods of consecutive sleep at night, and any concerns about frequent nighttime awakenings should be discussed with the pediatrician most familiar with the baby’s specific situation.
Babies that are born prematurely often need even more sleep than babies born at full term. It is not uncommon for premature babies to spend around 90% of their time asleep. The exact amount that a preterm newborn will sleep can depend on how premature they were born and their overall health.
Over the course of the first 12 months, preemies’ sleep patterns come to resemble those of full-term infants, but in the meantime, they often have more total sleep, lighter sleep, and less consistent sleep overall.
There is some debate about how and whether the method of feeding affects a baby’s sleep. While some research has found more nighttime awakenings in babies who are breastfed, other studies have found little difference between sleep patterns of breastfed and formula-fed babies.
Overall, because of documented health benefits apart from sleep, the AAP recommends exclusively breastfeeding for six months and then continuing with complementary breastfeeding for a year or more. Although not firmly established, there is some evidence that babies who are breastfed may have better sleep during their preschool years.
Parents who have concerns about their baby’s sleep should start by speaking with a pediatrician. Keeping a sleep diary to track your child’s sleep patterns may help the doctor determine if your baby’s sleep has a normal pattern or may reflect a potential sleeping problem.
For babies who struggle to sleep through the night, behavioral changes may encourage longer sleep sessions. For example, reducing the speed of response to awakenings may encourage self-soothing, and gradually pushing back bedtime may create more sleepiness that helps a baby stay asleep longer.
It may also be beneficial to improve sleep hygiene by creating a consistent sleep schedule and routine and ensuring that the baby has a calm and quiet environment for sleep. Infant sleep hygiene should also account for important safety measures to prevent the risk of suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The amount of sleep that kids should get changes significantly as they get older. As they move from toddlers to school age, their sleep becomes increasingly similar to that of adults.
In this process, the sleep requirements for young children decline, and that is reflected primarily in a decreased amount of time spent napping during the day.
Even though kids sleep for fewer hours than babies, sleep remains critical to their overall health and development. Lack of sufficient sleep at a young age has been correlated with problems with weight, mental health, behavior, and cognitive performance.
It is recommended that toddlers get between 11 and 14 hours of total sleep every day. Their napping decreases compared to infants and frequently accounts for around 1-2 hours of daily sleep. Two naps per day is normal at the start of this period, but it’s not uncommon for older toddlers to take only an afternoon nap.
Preschool-aged children who are 3-5 years old should get around 10-13 total hours of sleep per day according to NSF and AASM guidelines. During this time, naps may get shorter, or a preschooler may stop napping on a regular basis.
The NSF advises that school-age children should sleep for a total of 9-11 hours every day. The AASM extends the top part of the range to 12 hours.
As school-age includes a wider set of ages, the individual needs of any given child in this group can vary significantly. Younger school-age children typically need more sleep than those who are in middle school or approaching high school.
When children in school-age years start to go through puberty and enter adolescence, their sleep patterns change markedly and can give rise to distinct challenges that confront teens and sleep.
For many kids, it is normal to take naps, especially when they are toddlers and preschool-aged. During these years, napping may continue to confer benefits for memory and thinking.
It is normal for napping to slowly phase out during early childhood with naps becoming both shorter and less frequent. This may occur naturally or as a result of schedules for school or child care.
Although many children stop napping by around age five, it’s important to remember that nap preferences can be different for every child. In preschools with scheduled nap time, some children sleep easily, but others — up to 42.5% in one study — fall asleep only sometimes or not at all.
Some older children may still be inclined to nap and can benefit from doing so. In a study in China, where it is often more culturally appropriate to nap, children in grades 4-6 who took frequent naps after lunch showed signs of better behavior, academic achievement, and overall happiness.
The existing research about napping and optimal timing of sleep episodes is inconclusive and acknowledges that what’s best for one child can change over time and may not be what’s best for another child of the same age. For this reason, parents, teachers, and child care workers may be able to best encourage optimal sleep for kids by being flexible and understanding about naps.
It is estimated that 25% of young children deal with sleeping problems or excessive daytime sleepiness, and these issues can affect older children and teens as well. While the nature of sleeping challenges vary, parents should talk with their children about sleep and raise the issue with their pediatrician if there are signs of severe or persistent problems, including insomnia.
Helping children sleep often starts with creating a bedroom environment that is peaceful, quiet, and comfortable. Having an appropriate mattress and minimizing distractions, such as from TV or other electronic devices, can make it easier for children of any age to get consistent sleep.
Establishing healthy sleep habits, including a stable sleep schedule and pre-bed routine, can reinforce the importance of bedtime and cut down on night-to-night variability in sleep. Giving children an opportunity to use up their energy during the day and to unwind before bedtime can make it easier for them to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.