But for all the sleep I miss being up with my son after a nightmare or treating my daughter’s fever, I know it’s way more important that my kids get enough sleep — not only for a smoother day, but also for their health and development.
But what exactly is enough sleep? We hear a lot about specific number of hours of sleep with our babies, but it becomes more nebulous as kids get older. Depending on the season and daylight length, if school is in session, number or types of activities, and if illness or allergies are present, sleep requirements can shift a lot.
The new guidelines, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, were developed in discussions among a panel of 13 experts in sleep medicine and research with the purpose of promoting optimal health in children and youth from 4 months to 18 years old:
- Infants 4-12 months — 12-16 hours
- Toddlers 1-2 years — 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers 3-5 years — 10-13 hours
- Children 6-12 years — 9-12 hours
- Adolescents 13-18 years — 8-10 hours.
All recommendations are based on amount of sleep per 24 hours and do include naps as well as nighttime sleep. Infants younger than 4 months were not included due to the wide range in normal sleep patterns and lack of evidence of effect on health outcomes.
Sleeping the recommended number of hours on a regular basis is purportedly associated with improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health.
Insufficient sleep has an increased risk of accidents, injuries, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and depression. And with teenagers, the list further includes an increased risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts. Nothing like a good scare tactic to convince parents to let their teenagers sleep in, eh?
It is nice to have an evidence-based recommendation on number of hours for healthy sleep for all ages of infants, children and adolescents. Yet, I think it’s important to think of these recommendations as guidelines. I see these recommendations as a starting point, knowing full well that each of my 3 children are unique in so many ways and that includes sleep.
My oldest, age 10, has always required much more sleep than her siblings — taking daily naps well into 1st grade. She is the last to rise in the morning and the first to go to bed at night, and she has for many years actually asked to go to bed if she’s tired.
My middle and youngest, ages 8 and 4, on the other hand, think of the mention of a nap as a 4-letter word. My middle daughter even called naptime a punishment when she was younger! She is the exact opposite of her big sister in so many ways and this includes sleep. She is the first to rise in the morning, often at the crack of dawn, almost never needs a daytime nap, and can easily stay up until almost midnight most nights — whispering play stories to herself while lying in bed, waiting for sleepiness to set in.
My 4-year-old has the most typical sleep patterns, though he long ago gave up daytime naps. He probably gets close to the 10-13 hours as recommended in these guidelines — whereas my oldest child needs toward the upper end, if not more than, the 9-12 hours recommended and my middle child sleeps less than her recommended hours.
The guidelines state that if parents are concerned about their child sleep too little or too much, they should consult a health care provider for evaluation of a possible sleep disorder. And that’s good, but I don’t think that sleeping outside the recommended hours is necessarily cause for concern. There are just so many factors that go into how much sleep a child needs. Some children just have a lot more energy than others and therefore require less sleep. Some children just need more sleep than others; it could be related to illness, or it could be related to stress, or even activities. A kid playing softball every afternoon is going to need more sleep than a kid who spends his afternoons reading or taking a stroll through the park.
And the experts behind these recommendations understand that, too, I think. The discussion included with the guidelines states that there needs to be further scientific investigation to gain a clearer understanding of the precise biological mechanisms underlying sleep, and that the these recommendations create a foundation to raise awareness of the effects of sleep on health.
The best way to use these guidelines, in my opinion, is as one more “tool” in our parenting knowledge base to be able to guide our children in healthy habits but to take into consideration that each child is unique in their sleep requirements and that’s okay.