Sleep: a guide to your family’s sleep needs

How much sleep should you be getting?

There has been tons of research about how much sleep the average child and adult should be getting. Some studies suggest that adults can be healthy on just 6 hours of quality sleep, and others insist that 8 hours is the minimum amount for proper functioning. For children, the numbers depend on the age of the child, and can range from 8 to 18 hours of sleep per 24 hour period.

What affects sleep needs?

Every body is going to be different. Body types, the level of activity during the day, the health of the person, and their natural circadian rhythms all play a role in determining how much sleep is needed. Those who perform heavy labour or frequent running activity will need more rest and sleep than someone who’s job is sedentary, or who spends large amounts of time in a vehicle.  Someone suffering chronic health conditions will need more sleep than someone who has no health issues at all.

Sleep needs also vary by growth and development.  This is why babies sleep a lot, and why children sleep less. It’s also why teens sleep more than children. Ever notice how when you’re learning a new skill, you feel exhausted? Working your brain requires you to sleep just as much as when you are working your body.  Your family’s sleep needs will change depending on whether or not they are growing, physically, developmentally, or emotionally.

What are the general sleep needs for your family?

Infants (<1 year) 

Generally, infants will sleep 11-18 hours out of every 24. This is, obviously, not all at once. Most infants get their hours of sleep in 2-3 hour sessions. Newborns will sleep more, but for shorter amounts of time, as they need to eat frequently. As your baby gets older, their sleep sessions will last longer, but there will be more periods of time where they are awake as well.

By the time a child is 3 months old, its not unusual to have a longer period of sleep lasting 4-5 hours at night. By 6 months old, they could be sleeping a 6-8 hour period at night. They may not, either. You may notice a period of frequent waking and eating, that lasts about a week, followed by a week of much longer sleeping sessions, both at night and during nap times. This usually coincides with a major milestone, growth spurt or both. All of that is typical child development.

Toddlers (1-3 years)

By a child’s first birthday, their sleep patterns should have settled into a regular routine of naps and nights. Most children will have 2 naps per day, plus a full night, with maybe 1 or 2 wake-ups, as a new 1 year old. Over their toddlerhood, they will gradually reduce their naps to 1 longer nap in the afternoons, and increase their sleep at night.

Many parents can be frustrated by this process. We get used to their routines, and then, all of a sudden it seems, they go and start resisting, changing the whole schedule. And illness, growth spurt or developmental milestone can throw everything off, as well. But if you can pay attention to the total amount of sleep in a 24 hour period, you can generally tell if Junior needs a morning nap, a longer afternoon nap, or if they have gotten enough sleep already.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

The preschool years are busy! Our three, four and five year olds are active, curious and mischievous little humans that can both delight us and drive us crazy. They constantly ask questions and want to touch everything. They seem full of energy!

Yet, these children are still growing and developing at exponential rates. Their sleep needs are still quite heavy, and most 3-5 year olds still need afternoon naps. Generally, they won’t need a 3 hour nap. But as a parent, you might appreciate the difference a 1 hour nap will make in their behaviour and emotional regulation.

It is during these years that developing good bedtime sleep routines is essential. Protecting their evenings and prioritizing their bedtime habits may limit what you can do as a family or as a parent, but it is so important. When you can establish the foundation of good habits at bedtime, you can prevent and eliminate so many struggles. You’ll also lay the foundation of good health, physically, academically and emotionally.

Children (6-9 years)

Most children, during the early elementary school years, lose the need for naps and sleep through the night in 8-10 hour sessions. Parents may notice that their child’s sleep needs will vary according to growth, and you might even be able to predict a growth spurt by paying attention. If a child all of a sudden seems to need an extra 1-2 hours of sleep at night, you may want to budget for new shoes soon!

Childhood is when consistent sleep routines are easy to maintain. Children thrive on predictability. So if you laid the foundation of good bedtime habits during their preschool years, you’ll reap the benefits during childhood. You can even take them to the occasional special event and keep them up later, without damaging that ability to go to bed without struggle.

Preteens (9-12 years)

The preteen years catch many of us parents by surprise. We got used to the easy sleeping habits of our children. But these preteen years can see the return to a transitional sleep period, where everything is changing. It echoes the preschooler years, when our kids were transitioning from napping daily to not at all, but in reverse.

Your preteen’s sleep needs will increase over this period. Their bodies are changing, preparing and beginning the process of puberty, and those changes are intense. At the same time, their brains are growing and developing quickly, as those biological changes impact their emotional needs. And, on top of all the biochemistry going on inside, we also begin expecting more academically from our children. Middle school is when homework often becomes heavy and challenging.

As parents, the best thing we can do is prioritize our child’s sleep needs! This may mean allowing them to sleep in, when possible. Or insisting on an earlier bedtime than they would prefer. It may also mean allowing for the occasional nap (usually as an answer to an emotional meltdown, when they are beyond all reason!).

Teenagers (13-18 years)

Teenagers are caught up in the middle of a perfect storm. Biologically, their bodies are changing from childhood to adulthood, with all the intensity of a hurricane, hormonal-ly speaking. Emotionally, they are transitioning from complete dependence and natural obedience to their parents, to complete independence and the natural questioning of parental values. Academically, they are trying to decide their own futures, when they are changing their minds hourly on what they like and don’t like.

We also ask them to spend hours on school work, have an after-school job, date and maintain friendships and relationships, do chores, help out the family, and keep an even emotional calm throughout.

Is it any wonder our teens are sleep-deprived and somewhat crazy?

Biologically speaking, there is scientific evidence to suggest that teenagers across the board will have natural sleep rhythms that change. They will tend to be unable to sleep until later at night, and will need more sleep in the morning. In other words, they aren’t sleeping in because they’re lazy! It’s a biological imperative instead.

As parents, there are a few things we can do to help our teens. We can help them set boundaries on their own time, giving them the excuse they need to stay no to social activities. We can protect them from academic overbearing pressure by insisting on limits to homework or extracurriculars. And we can be careful in our own expectations of them, regarding chores and helping out around the home.

And, we can let them sleep in, when possible.

Adults (18+)

Everyone needs sleep. How much will depend on you. By now, as an adult, you should be able to determine for yourself just how much sleep you need. You may be fine with 5-6 hours a night. You may need 10 hours to feel like yourself. Your lifestyle, your natural body rhythms, your general health and your activity level will all determine your sleep needs.

We often get frustrated by our need to sleep. I know I struggle with this. I want to push myself past what is healthy, so that I can get more things done in my day. However, all I accomplish is lower productivity, lower immune response and lower energy levels. I’m irritable, more likely to get sick and I get less done, even though I spend more time doing it.

Just like our children, we need to protect our own sleep habits. Good bedtime habits will help us fall asleep and stay asleep. Science shows that, as a whole, the adult population of most western countries is a sleep-deprived one. So if we can get more sleep, we’ll be able to do more, be happier and be healthier.

Your family’s sleep needs are important!

Here’s a handy guide to determine how much sleep your family needs.

(Click to download a printable version.)

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