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The Experts Weigh In: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

A baby fast asleep in the crib sucking on a pacifier.

The Experts Weigh In: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

A baby fast asleep in the crib sucking on a pacifier.

Everyone has those nights where sleep feels like an impossibility; tossing and turning, staring at the clock, eyes fixed on the ceiling and that dreaded anxiety about how awful tomorrow will feel without enough shut-eye. If these nights have become the norm, you aren’t alone.

Lack of sleep is all too common in the U.S.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 33 percent of us aren’t clocking the rest we need to refuel for the next day.

Sleep deprivation isn’t just a nuisance, it can also be damaging to our bodies. While we know that excessive drowsiness is one of the major side effects for those restless nights, too little sleep can lead to other issues too.

You might have trouble concentrating, and, according to Healthy Sleep (affiliated with the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School), consistently clocking too few sleeping hours may cause “chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, and that these conditions may lead to a shortened life expectancy.”

Sleep is our body’s way of resetting for another day, and we can take control of our sleep needs.

The first step is understanding how much sleep we really need. While each individual might have a different sleep pattern and sleeping preferences, there are general recommendations for each age group related to sleep duration.

Is your sleep measuring up to the guidelines? The National Sleep Foundation issued revised recommendations in 2015. These are the results of the hours of sleep necessary by age demographics:

  • Newborns (birth up to three months): 14 to 17 hours
  • Infants (ranging in age from four to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours
  • Toddlers (one and two-year olds): 11 to 14 hours
  • Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5): 10 to 13
  • Elementary and Middle School (ages 6 to 13): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teens (ages 14 through 17): 8 to 10 hours
  • Adults (18-25 and older ages 26-64): 7 to 9
  • Senior Adults (65+): 7 to 8 hours

Doctors Weigh in on Sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued its own recommendations for adequate sleep per age group.  For babies (ages 4 months to a year), the AAP advises 12 to 16 hours of sleep (a little different than the NSF). Toddlers (one year to two years) need anywhere from 11 to 14 hours of sleep; preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) should clock 10 to 13 hours, while grade school kids (6 to 12) should doze off into dreamland for 9 to 12 hours every day. As for teens, the AAP recommends at least 8 hours (but up to 10) of sleep through age 18.

Let’s take a closer look at the needs of sleep per age group.

Newborns

Welcome to the world! Newborns will experience lots of growth and change, and, while parents might feel as though their baby isn’t sleeping (especially at night), the truth is that newborns should be clocking a LOT of sleep each day.

Parents often measure sleep success during nighttime hours. Every new parent jumps for joy the day that their little one sleeps through the night. However, day sleep is very important for newborns, too. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 14 to 17 hours of sleep for newborns (up to three months). Even if baby sleeps 12 hours at night, daily naps could total two to five hours.

If baby isn’t giving parents a block of sleep through the night, then naps might be more substantial during the day. Remember, every baby is different. Just be sure that the sleep needs are being met…somehow. While the night waking might not be convenient, it could just be your baby’s pattern.

Make sure baby is comfortable—not too warm or cool. Use blanket sleepers that zip up to keep baby snug and warm in winter. Always place newborns on their back for sleeping; never use blankets or pillows in the crib!

Infants

Eventually, baby will sleep through the night. Some clock 12 hours each night and only take a short nap during the day. Others, though, balance sleep during the day and night. Either way they should get between 12 and 15 hours of sleep adding all up.

Some parents may find that getting baby to fall and stay asleep is a unicorn quest. If parents are looking for ways to make bedtime easier at night, maybe it’s time to start a night routine. 

How can you encourage good sleep patterns in babies? These tips may help getting your baby to have healthy sleep habits:

  • Putting baby down in the crib slightly awake (this helps them fall asleep on their own)
  • Playing soothing sounds (like the ocean, rain or soft music)
  • Giving baby a bath before bed
  • Rocking baby, sing or read a book (it’s never too early to read to your baby)

And, yes, “back to sleep” is still the rule! Continue to say no to pillows, blankets or toys in the crib.

Toddlers

The toddler years mean walking, some talking and maybe lots of mischief. Those inquisitive little ones need plenty of sleep to fuel their adventures, though.

Some toddlers could outgrow naps if they sleep 12 hours each night. However, if your toddler isn’t sleeping a massive chunk at night, an afternoon nap will help them feel better and might even save you from a few meltdowns. Experts recommend they sleep between 11 and 14 hours of sleep.

Sleep routines may aid your toddler to prepare for sleep at night. Try to establish a family routine that signals down-time. A few ideas include:

  • Initiating quiet time for the family an hour before bed
  • Dimming lights in the room
  • Scheduling an evening bath (never leave them unattended!)
  • Reading a book
  • Allowing toddlers to pick out jammies

Each family might have a unique routine; there isn’t a set pattern you need to follow. The importance of setting a routine is so that your toddler will associate the evening patterns with winding down and going to bed. Ideally, the routine will lead to less stress and a toddler who doesn’t fuss about bedtime.

Preschoolers

Naps might have become a distant memory, and a preschooler may clock all sleep hours at night. Some, though, might still need a nap.

Like toddlers, preschoolers need consistency at bedtime. Parents may still want to use the same routine to signal bedtime. Remember having a bedtime routine really helps!

The key is to stay consistent. Your older preschooler might stay up a little later, but the set bedtime really depends on what time your little one needs to be awake. Keep in mind they need between 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day.

This age group might be quite into technology, and parents may be enticed to let preschoolers play games on a device before bed. The blue light from screens can interfere with sleep patterns, though. Turn the screens off before bed; rely on books instead!

Grade School and Middle School

This age group is going to be more independent. Kids will rely less on parents putting them to bed and more on putting themselves to bed. Parents still need to set a bedtime for school kids and make sure they stick to it. These youngsters still need between 9 and 11 or 12 hours of sleep, depending on the expert advice (NSF or AAP).

Tweens may be prone to staring at phones or other devices in bed. They may chat with friends or game online. Take control of the phones and mobile devices. Make sure these aren’t a distraction during bedtime. Again, blue light isn’t helpful for sleep.

Since most grade school kids need to read each night, this is the ideal time to encourage them to crack open a book. Some kids also fall asleep easier listening to music; if this helps your child, then let them turn on the radio or even better: queue up a playlist.

Keep present that this age group still needs a significant amount of sleep each night; some may need the minimum recommendation, but others may require the maximum amount of sleep. Adjust lights out policies accordingly.

A child who is sleep deprived might not learn effectively the next day. Make sure their brains get enough rest to face the school day!

A teen girl asleep while studying for exams in the library.

Teens

Teens will soon become adults who need to follow their own good sleep habits. Help encourage teens to clock enough sleep by setting an example and removing distractions.

  • Have a lights out policy
  • Make sure they sleep at least 8 hours each night
  • Ban technology from the bedroom (phones, tablets, televisions)
  • Don’t let teens pull all-nighters. Enforce good study habits
  • Limit their caffeine and sugar intake (if you can!)

Some teens may need up to 10 hours of sleep. If they have to be at school at 8 a.m. (and up by 6:30 a.m.), this means they need to be asleep by 8:30 p.m. Even teens who only need eight hours should be in bed by 10 p.m.

If your teen is binging television shows until midnight, it’s probably time to put the bad habits to bed!

Adults

The National Sleep Foundation separates young adults (18 to 25) and adults, but the sleep recommendations are the same for both demographics.

If you’re between the ages of 18 and 64, then your body needs seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Not getting that much? You should make some changes to your routine.

Certain bad habits could make sleep an absolute nightmare. Here are a few tips on encouraging your body to fall asleep:

  • Limit caffeine
  • Don’t drink too much before bed (unless you want to go to the bathroom every hour)
  • Turn off the screens
  • Read a book
  • Listen to classical music
  • Write down your worries (so they don’t keep you awake)
  • Limit naps during the day

Still can’t fall asleep? You could try adjusting your thermostat! If you’re uncomfortable, you might need a new mattress.

Creating a sleep oasis in your bedroom also could help lull you to sleep, or at least make the bedroom much more of a desirable place to land.

Infographic: How Much Sleep Do You Really Need

Infographic: How much sleep do you really need?

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