Just like food, water and oxygen, sleep is a fundamental need. We all know how we feel after a poor night’s rest – irritable, dopey and not much fun to be around! For children, sleep is even more important. Enough rest every night is essential for their development, both physical and mental. Babies, children and teenagers need more sleep than us adults, but how much exactly? And, what are the consequences of too little sleep? This guide will show you how much sleep children need, how to tell if your child isn’t getting enough and, more importantly, what can be done about it.
How long should children of different ages sleep each day?
They say that adults require about 8 hours sleep a night. But we all know that this isn’t true – some of us can get by on 6 or 7 hours while others need 9 or 10. We’re all different – and the same is true of children. However, to give you a rough idea of the average amount of sleep children need, here’s a table based on the NHS’s recommendations for different ages:
|1 week||8 hours||8.5 hours|
|4 weeks||6.5 hours||8.5 hours|
|3 months||4.5 hours||8.5 hours|
|6 months||3 hours||10.5 hours |
|9 months||2.5 hours||11 hours|
|12 months||2.5 hours||11 hours|
|2 years||1.5 hours||11.5 hours|
|3 years||0.5 hours||11.5 hours|
|4 years||-||11.5 hours|
|5 years||-||11 hours|
|6 years||-||10.75 hours|
|7 years||-||10.5 hours|
|8 years||-||10.25 hours|
|9 years||-||10 hours|
|10 years||-||9.75 hours|
|11 years||-||9.5 hours|
|12-13 years||-||9.25 hours|
|14-17 years||-||9 hours|
This table is only a rough guide, so don’t be alarmed if your child has slightly more or less than average. My own daughter, aged 5, has only 10 hours per night, despite my best efforts!
Do children get enough sleep?
Of course, each child is different, but studies have shown that, in the last two decades, the amount of sleep children are getting has decreased. Those worst affected are teenagers, kept awake by the lure of games consoles and mobile phones.
The sleeping habits of more than a quarter of a million children were studied between 1991 and 2012. At the beginning of the investigation, 72% of adolescents were getting 7 or more hours sleep per night – by its end this number had fallen to just 63%.
How can I tell if my child isn’t getting enough sleep?
This trend is worrying, as there are many problems a lack of sleep can cause. So, how can you tell if your child is not sleeping enough? Well, there are a few tell-tale signs to look out for:
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning
- Oversleeping at weekends or during school holidays
- Drowsiness during the day
- Easily upset
The last two items on this list could be signs of other problems, like depression or anxiety. However, the first three are almost certainly the result of a lack of sleep. If your child ticks any of these boxes then a poor night’s rest could well be to blame.
What causes lack of sleep?
There are many things that can stop us from sleeping. A great many of us suffer from sleep disorders (which we’ll look at in more detail later) but, for the majority, bad ‘sleep hygiene’ is to blame. Sleep hygiene isn’t about having clean sheets! It’s a term used to describe the good habits which will help us to drop off and to stay asleep throughout the night.
Here are some of the main culprits that may keep your child awake:
- Caffeine – We all know that coffee wakes us up in the morning and, if we’re feeling tired during the day, we might turn to caffeine for a boost. But caffeine is a stimulant so it’s best avoided for at least 6 hours before bedtime
- Evening activity – Doing strenuous work shortly before bed (like playing football or going to dance class) is not a good idea. You might think it would wear us out but it actually stimulates our bodies and keeps us awake for longer
- Supper – Heavy meals make us drowsy, don’t they? Yes, they can, but certain foods have the opposite effect. Avoid rich or fatty foods in the evening. Spicy dishes can also keep us awake
- TV and video games – Exciting films or TV programmes, as well as video games, can make our minds more alert and so prevent us from falling to sleep. Avoid them for an hour or so before bedtime
- Light – Anyone who’s tried to sleep during the day, after working a nightshift, will tell you that light makes it harder to sleep! Even the light from a TV or mobile phone is enough to fool the brain into thinking it’s time to get up
- Noise – Sounds, coming from elsewhere in the home or from outside, can stop us from sleeping. If your child is in bed then make sure that TVs, computers, music (and even conversations) in other rooms, all have their volume turned right down
- Daytime naps – These can be tempting when we’re feeling tired, but sleeping for more than half an hour during the day can stop us from getting to sleep at night
- Worry – Stress, be it due to problems at home, at school or overwork, is a major cause of insomnia. If your child can’t sleep then talk to them and see if they have any worries. If so, you may be able to help them
What can I do to help my child sleep?
So, now we know some of the things that keep children awake – what can we do to help them sleep? It’s all down to sleep hygiene again! There are several good habits you can get your child into which should help. Here’s a list of the most useful:
- Exercise – While evening activity may stop us from dropping off, exercise during the day does wonders for our sleep. Even a brisk walk or a short bike ride can be enough to improve our sleep
- Sunlight – Our bodies use light to regulate their natural rhythms. If we stay indoors and don’t get enough sunlight then our brains may become confused. This, together with unnatural light in our homes, can make falling to sleep more difficult
- Relaxation – As we wind down in the evening, calming activities help us get ready for sleep. Instead of watching TV or playing computer games, things like reading a book or having a hot bath will help
- Routine – Doing the same things every evening will help us to sleep. Our bodies will come to associate them with bedtime and start to slow down when they happen. Try something like taking a bath an hour before bed every night and then reading for half an hour
- Avoid stimulants – It might seem obvious but coffee in the evening (or even in the afternoon) can keep us awake. And coffee isn’t the only stimulant – nicotine can also make us more alert, which may be a problem for some teenagers
- Thick curtains – Bright light can keep us awake so make sure that the bedroom is dark. It’s also a good idea to remove sources of light such as TV screens or mobile phones from the bedroom
- Ear plugs – If you live in a noisy area (beside a main road for example) then ear plugs might be necessary. If your child finds these uncomfortable then you can get ‘white noise’ generators which make more relaxing sounds
- Temperature – If the bedroom is too hot or too cold then it can keep us awake. We sleep best between 15o and 20o Celsius. In the summer you might want to invest in a fan and, in the winter, extra blankets might help
What are sleep disorders?
If you’ve made sure that your child has good sleep hygiene but they still can’t sleep, then there may be an underlying reason – a sleep disorder. There are many of these – some rare, others all too common. Here’s a list of sleep disorders you may encounter, and their symptoms:
- Insomnia – Inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Usually the result of poor sleep hygiene or another problem (like stress) but occasionally (about 1 case in 20) insomnia can occur with no apparent cause
- Parasomnia – A wide variety of conditions involving abnormal movement or sensations. Examples include sleepwalking, sleep-talking, restless-leg syndrome, teeth-grinding, groaning, bedwetting, night terrors and hallucinations of loud noises
- Hypersomnia – Oversleeping at night and drowsiness during the day. There are many possible causes of hypersomnia. It can be brought on by stress, by menstrual activity or by other conditions such as narcolepsy
- Sleep disordered breathing – Sufferers of SDB breathe ‘differently’ while asleep. Snoring is the most common form but more serious types include upper airway resistance syndrome (in which the airway becomes narrower and so disrupts sleep) and sleep apnoea (in which breathing becomes shallow or may even stop altogether for moments or for minutes)
- Circadian rhythm sleep disorder – Those with CRSD have no problem sleeping – they just can’t do it at the usual time because of problems with their body clocks. ‘Jet lag’ is the most familiar kind but others include advanced sleep phase disorder, delayed sleep phase disorder and non-24-hour sleep–wake disorder
If you suspect that your child may have any of these conditions then talk to your GP.
There is something else which can disrupt our sleep which, although not a sleep disorder, I think is worth a mention – depression and anxiety.
Depression and anxiety are firmly linked to insomnia. What’s more, the relationship goes both ways – insomnia can exacerbate the illness and the illness can cause insomnia. It’s a vicious circle which can be very hard to get out of. You might notice the lack of sleep before other symptoms, or vice versa. If you suspect that your child is depressed or anxious then I would recommend talking with them about the issue and, if necessary, seeking medical help.
Does lack of sleep affect children’s health?
Insomnia can affect our mental health, whether it’s as mild as irritability or as severe as depression. But sleep is vital for our physical health too – especially in children whose brains and bodies are still developing. Here’s a list of health conditions (major and minor) which can be the result of not enough sleep on a regular basis:
- Obesity – This may sound strange but studies show that those who sleep for less than 7 hours a night are more likely to put on weight. The reason – sleep is necessary in order for us to create the hormone that makes us feel full
- Diabetes – Severe sleep loss can cause type 2 diabetes. If we don’t get enough deep sleep then our bodies may struggle to process glucose properly
- Weak immune system – Those who don’t get enough sleep are less able to cope with infections. If your child seems to catch every cold that’s doing the rounds, then a lack of sleep could be to blame
- High blood pressure – Lack of sleep can increase our heartrates and our blood pressure. Studies have shown that shift-workers are more prone to heart attacks and strokes because of this
Does lack of sleep affect children at school?
Tired children don’t do as well in school as they could. As well as having worse attendance records (due to oversleeping and minor illnesses) there are more reasons for this:
- Poor memory – Sleep plays an important role in memory retention. The less we sleep, the worse we are at recalling anything new we’ve learned the previous day. This is one of the reasons why younger children sleep the most – just about everything they come across is a new thing which has to be filed away in their brain
- Lack of attention – A tired mind finds concentration much more difficult. Simple things like following instructions or listening to lessons all suffer in children who haven’t slept well enough
- Misbehaviour – Because they are tired and irritable, children who miss out on sleep are more likely to get into trouble at school. In nursery-age children, tiredness can manifest as hyperactivity and temper tantrums
- Poor creativity – Abstract thinking is affected by sleep. You may think this is not very important but it’s actually vital for language, logic and creativity. English, maths, science and most other school subjects rely on abstract thinking
So, how much sleep do children need? It varies between ages and individuals but one thing’s for sure – they all need enough! Tiredness can make children unhappy and dopey; it can lower their concentration levels and make them less able to succeed at school; it can even affect their health. If your child is not getting enough sleep then I hope this article will help you to tackle the monster that is insomnia – good luck!
EQ’s Knowledge Bank is a resource which aims to answer parents’ questions. Whether you want to know the ins and outs of the primary curriculum, have ever wondered if homework has any value, or want to keep your child safe online, then it’s the place to go. We have loads of info about all aspects of education and schooling, along with tips and advice on raising happy, healthy and safe children. It's well worth a look.