Our Children’s Need for Sleep

Some of our children’s brain growth and development occurs during sleep. But just how much sleep does your child need to achieve his or her proper growth rate?

Anyone with children understands the anxiety around sleep from sleep training and sleeping through the night versus daytime napping. In fact, the debate seems as old as time and heavily influenced by cultural norms and societal demands.

How have sleep patterns developed & changed?

Before the industrial revolution which began around 1750, societies in Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America arranged their sleeping routines around biphasic sleeping. People would begin their “first sleep” when the sun set, wake during the night to read, write, pray, socialize, etc. Then they’d squeeze in a “second sleep” in the hours before chores came a dawn.

During this time, children’s sleep habits were the same as adults, and little ones would fulfill their need for 2 to 10 additional hours of daily sleep (depending upon their age) however and whenever they could. 

After the industrial revolution, when families went to work in the factories, adult sleep schedules became more regimented. So too did children’s sleep patterns. Since that time, advice on child-rearing has become an industry, and scientist have learned more about how much sleep children really need, when they need it, which sleep pattern is best and what happens to young brains during sleep.

So how much sleep do our children need?

It is now clear that sleep is essential to learning, memory formation, emotional regulation, and physical and mental development. We also know that naps are an essential part of a child’s health and well-being.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children need a lot of sleep—up to 17 hours a day for infants under three months to 10 hours per night for 18-year-olds.

The CDC recommends the following amounts of sleep by age:

  •  12 months: More than 12 hours 
  • 1 – 2 years: More than 11 hours
  • 3 – 5 years: More than 10 hours, 
  • 6 – 12 years: More than 9 hours, and 
  • 13 – 14 years: More than 8 hours 

What about nap time?

Most young children need naps to fulfill their sleep needs. For children, the homeostatic process known as sleep pressure or tiredness, builds more quickly than it does in adults and older children. Because of this, they benefit from daytime naps. Additionally, it is often difficult for young children to get 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep during the night. So they make up for it with a few hours of naptime during the day. 

How do naps affect learning?

Naps are about more than just added sleep! Numerous studies have shown that napping clears the brain, so it can be filled again with new information. This is especially important for young children who are developing and learning at an extraordinary rate.

Research indicates that children who nap after learning new words, for example, remember the words 80 percent of the time, as opposed to 30 percent for those who don’t nap. Children who don’t nap also score an average of 10 percent lower on word retention tests compared to children who do nap. 

How do naps impact emotions and behavior?

Emotional memory and reactivity are also affected by napping. As any parent with a grumpy toddler knows, they might go to sleep cranky, but they tend to wake refreshed. That’s because a nap also clears out and files away any type of emotional development that occurred before the nap, giving your waking child a clean slate. If they don’t get a nap, the emotional memories from the morning (i.e., arguing about breakfast, complaining about putting on their shoes, etc.) won’t be released and will continue to build throughout the day.

What happens when a child doesn’t get a nap?

Napping is vital to emotional and physical development. Children who don’t get those naps are more likely to have attention issues, emotional disruption, academic difficulties, mental health problems, weight gain, even changes in growth. 

Nearly all human growth hormones are produced during deep sleep. A 45-minute nap is long enough to produce these growth hormones! Lack of sleep can result in decreased growth hormone and cortisol levels. 

If your child is going through a sleep regression, don’t panic! It is most often temporary. In fact, children with disrupted sleep due to illness for example, will often experience a growth spurt once they recover their normal sleeping regimen.

At what age do children give up naps?

While children mature at different rates, most grow out of the need for a nap by age 5. However, some children will continue to benefit from napping longer. 

According to a 2019 study, presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics, only about half of U.S. children age 6 to 17 are getting enough sleep. Those that don’t get enough rest are deficient in measures of “childhood flourishing,” such as showing curiosity about new things, caring about their schoolwork, staying calm when faced with a challenge, and finishing tasks they’d begun. 

How can I help my child sleep better?

  • Create a calm, quiet, cool room for sleep.
  • Lull your young child to sleep at naptime by placing a hand on their back, rubbing their feet, or simply sitting beside them.
  • Establish a ritual that lets your child’s body know it’s time for bed, like bath time followed by story time.
  • Exercise! The body needs to be active during the day to have better sleep.
  • Speak to a pediatric sleep specialist, if your child is struggling with sleep. Sometimes medications can help children with neurodevelopmental disorders fall asleep and stay asleep. Additionally, neurotypical kids sometimes benefit from melatonin until regular sleep patterns develop/resume. 

Teens don’t usually benefit from naps, which can actually lead to sleep imbalance. They should however practice good sleep hygiene by meditating, having a bath before bedtime or sipping chamomile tea. 

It’s important to remember that all children are different. Some are easy sleepers, happy to nap and wake with a smile. The next child might be hard to put down and harder to wake up. Our approach to childhood sleep should not be one-size-fits all. 

Sometimes sleep issues like snoring, not feeling rested, or difficulty sleeping, might indicate an underlying health issue like sleep apnea. If you suspect that you or your child might suffer from sleep apnea, reach out to your primary care provider.  RefuahHealth’s Dr. David Krich, pediatric pulmonologist and Dr. Richard Finkel, adult pulmonologist, specialize in the treatment of sleep apnea and other pulmonary disorders. Contact RefuahHealth’s Specialty Team for more information. 

If you’re concerned about your child’s sleep habits, reach out to your pediatrician today!