The Importance of Sleep
Sleep— or lack of it — is probably the most-discussed part of baby care. So how do you get kids to bed — and keep them there? What should you do when kids wake in the middle of the night? And how much sleep is enough for your kids?
How Much Is Enough?
Sleep needs vary by age. But common "rules" about how many hours of sleep an infant or a 2-year-old need might not be helpful when it comes to your own child. These numbers are simply averages reported for large groups of kids of particular ages.
There's no magical number of hours all kids need in a certain age group. Still, sleep is very important to kids' well-being. The link between a lack of sleep and a child's behavior isn't always obvious. When adults are tired, they can be grumpy or lack energy. But kids can become hyper, disagreeable, and have extreme changes in behavior.
Here are some numbers based on age, with tips to help you get your child to sleep.
Babies (Up to 6 Months)
Newborns' internal clocks aren't fully developed. They can sleep up to 18 hours a day, divided about equally between night and day. Newborns should be wakened for feeding if they sleep more than 4 hours until they have good weight gain, usually within the first couple of weeks. After that, it's OK if a baby sleeps for longer periods.
After those first weeks, infants may sleep for as long as 4 or 5 hours at a time — this is about how long their small bellies can go between feedings. If babies do sleep a good stretch at night, they may want to nurse or get a bottle more often during the day.
Just when parents feel that sleeping through the night is a far-off dream, their baby usually begins to sleep longer stretches at night. At 3 months, a baby averages about 14 hours of sleep total, with 8–9 hours at night (usually with an interruption or two) and two or three daytime naps.
It's important to know that babies can cry and make all sorts of other noises during light sleep. Even if they do wake up in the night, they may only be awake for a few minutes before falling asleep again on their own.
But if a baby under 6 months old continues to cry, it's time to respond. Your baby may be truly uncomfortable: hungry, wet, cold, or even sick. Keep routine nighttime changes and feedings as quick and quiet as possible. Don't provide any unnecessary stimulation, such as talking, playing, turning on the lights, or using a bright mobile device while waiting for your child to sleep. Encourage the idea that nighttime is for sleeping. You have to teach this because your baby doesn't care what time it is as long as his or her needs are met.
Ideally, place your baby in the crib before he or she falls asleep. It's not too early to establish a simple bedtime routine. Any soothing activities (bathing, reading, singing) done consistently and in the same order each night can be part of the routine. Your baby will associate them with sleeping and they'll help your little one wind down.
The goal is for babies to fall asleep by themselves and learn to soothe themselves and go back to sleep if they wake up in the middle of the night.
Babies 6–12 Months
At 6 months, babies still need an average of 14 hours of sleep a day, with two to three daytime naps, lasting anywhere from 2 hours to 30 minutes each. Some babies, particularly those who are breastfed, may still wake at night. But most no longer need a middle-of-the-night feeding.
If your baby wakes in the middle of the night, but you don't think it's due to hunger, wait a few minutes before going to your baby. Sometimes, babies just need a few minutes to settle down on their down. Those who don't settle should be comforted without being picked up (talk softly to your baby, rub the back), then left to settle down again — unless they are sick. Sick babies need to be picked up and cared for. If your baby doesn't seem sick and continues to cry, you can wait a little longer, then repeat the short crib-side visit.
Between 6 and 12 months, separation anxiety, a normal part of development, comes into play. But the rules at night are the same through a baby's first birthday: Try not to pick up your baby, turn on the lights, sing, talk, play, or feed your child. These activities don't help your baby learn to fall asleep on his or her own and encourage more awakenings.
From ages 1 to 3, most toddlers sleep about 12–14 hours over a 24-hour period. Separation anxiety, or just wanting to be up with mom and dad (and not miss anything), can motivate a child to stay awake. So can the toddler style of always saying "No!"
It's important to set regular bedtimes and naptimes, and to stick to them. Parents sometimes think that keeping kids up will make them sleepier at bedtime. But kids can have a harder time sleeping if they're overtired. Though most toddlers take 1- to 3-hour naps during the day, you don't have to force your child to nap. But do schedule some quiet time, even if your toddler chooses not to sleep.
Establish a bedtime routine to help kids relax and get ready for sleep. For a toddler, the routine might be 5–30 minutes long and include calming activities such as reading a story, bathing, and listening to soft music.
Whatever the nightly ritual is, your toddler will probably insist that it be the same every night. Just don't allow rituals to become too long or complicated. Whenever possible, let your toddler make bedtime choices within the routine: which pajamas to wear, which stuffed animal to take to bed, what music to play. This gives your little one a sense of control.
Even the best sleepers give parents an occasional wake-up call. Teething can wake a toddler and so can dreams. Active dreaming begins at this age, and for very young children dreams can be alarming. Carefully choose the books you read with your toddler before bedtime, and keep the content mild. Nightmares are scary for toddlers, who can't tell imagination from reality.
Comfort and hold your child at these times. Let your toddler talk about the dream if he or she wants to, and stay until your child is calm. Then encourage your child to go back to sleep as soon as possible.
Time spent with screens (like a TV or tablet) can disrupt a child's sleep. That's one reason why health experts recommend:
- limiting screen time
- keeping toddlers away from screen devices in the hour before bedtime
- not keeping devices in a child's bedroom
Preschoolers sleep about 10–13 hours a night. Those who get enough rest at night may no longer need a daytime nap. Instead, they may benefit from some quiet time in the afternoon.
Most nursery schools and kindergartens have quiet periods when the kids lie on mats or just rest. As kids give up their naps, they may go to bed at night earlier than they did as toddlers.
School-Age Kids and Preteens
School-age kids need 9–12 hours of sleep a night. Bedtime problems can start at this age for a variety of reasons. Homework, sports and after-school activities, screen time (on computers, TVs, smartphones, and other devices), and hectic family schedules all can contribute to kids not getting the sleep they need.
Sleep-deprived kids can become hyper or irritable, and may have a hard time paying attention in school.
It's still important to have a consistent bedtime, especially on school nights. Leave enough technology-free time before bed to allow your child to unwind before lights-out. Consider switching off the electronics at least an hour before bed and keeping screens out of kids' bedrooms.
Teens need about 8–10 hours of sleep per night, but many don't get it. Early school start times on top of schedules packed with school, homework, friends, social media, and activities mean that many are chronically sleep deprived.
Sleep deprivation adds up over time, so an hour less per night is like a full night without sleep by the end of the week. Among other things, a lack of sleep can lead to:
- being less attentive
- inconsistent performance
- short-term memory loss
- delayed response time
This can lead to anger problems, trouble in school (academically and with teachers and peers), the use of stimulants like caffeine or energy drinks to feel more awake, and car crashes due to delayed response times or falling asleep at the wheel.
Teens also undergo a change in their sleep patterns — their bodies want to stay up late and wake up later, which often leads to them trying to catch up on sleep during the weekend. But this irregularity can make getting to sleep at a reasonable hour during the week even harder.
Ideally, a teen should try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, allowing for at least 9 hours of sleep.
No matter what your child's age, establish a bedtime routine that encourages good sleep habits. These tips can help kids ease into a good night's sleep:
- Stick to a bedtime, and give your kids a heads-up 30 minutes and then 10 minutes beforehand.
- Include a winding-down period in the routine.
- Encourage older kids and teens to set and maintain a bedtime that allows for the full hours of sleep needed at their age.