Sleep, oh, beautiful sleep… the lengths I’ve gone to just to eek out an hour or two more! My first born isn’t a naturally good sleeper so I have to work at how many hours of sleep our family gets per night.
In this post, we’ll talk about:
- why sleep is so important for kids
- how many hours of sleep your child needs each night
- how to end sleep resistance
- and simple ways to maximize everyone’s sleep
Before we dive in, we’re going to share a chart of ideal sleep and wake times for kids. DON’T FRET IF YOUR CHILD DOENSN’T FALL WITHIN THE “IDEAL”. Children are all biochemically unique and each child will have his/her own pattern. The point is to work towards the “ideal” without losing our minds ?
Why sleep is so important for kids
We all know that sleep is important (like when baby finally sleeps through the night), but you may not realize just how vital it is to your child’s health and development. When kids aren’t well-rested, this can show up as tantrums, whininess, aggressive behavior, or bullying. It also negatively affects their memory.
During sleep, the brain organizes and catalogues the information of the day as memories. In one study conducted by neuroscientists, preschoolers played a memory game, then played again to test retention.
Those who napped before the second round retained all of the information, but the group that was kept awake without a nap didn’t perform as well. (Source).
Without adequate sleep, we feel less focused, less motivated and more scatter-brained (I know you know the feeling!)
Sleep supports the immune system
During times of stress or growth, we tend to sleep more. This is because the body uses this time to make repairs. Our bodies release cytokines that fight infections during sleep. If we’re not allowing time for these nightly repairs to take place, we’re more prone to falling ill. This study found that white blood cell counts dropped by 20% for sleep-deprived rats. That’s huge!
Rest promotes growth
A good portion of children’s lives are spent sleeping—about 40% to be exact. That’s good, too, because growth hormone is primarily secreted during sleep. (So, YES, children really do grow in their sleep!) It’s interesting to note that, in studies, kids grow more in the summer, when they don’t have to wake up early to catch a bus or go to school. (Source.)
If kids aren’t getting good shut-eye, their growth may be affected so it’s vital we teach our children how to sleep!
The two sleep cycles, REM and non-REM, both play a part in development. During the non-REM cycle, blood supply to the muscles is increased, energy stores are refilled, tissues grow, and systems repair. Their bodies then switch over to REM, or active sleep, where they dream.
Babies spend about 50% of their time in non-REM sleep since they’re growing so rapidly, but this stage declines as the child ages.
Best bedtime for children
The best bedtime for children will vary for each family, depending on schedules and when the child needs to (or typically) wakes up. The following sleep chart can help you determine what’s the best bedtime for your child by age.
How many hours of sleep do kids need?
This is the million dollar question, amiright?! No matter what various charts said by various experts, my son was always on the low side. (Sigh!) So, don’t get too caught up with comparing your child to others. However, it’s good to see guidelines so that you can shoot for ideals. Here are National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations for total hours of sleep by age. (You’ll notice a big variation in their ranges since children’s sleep needs can differ pretty substantially!)
Newborn to 2 months: 10.5–18 hours of sleep
3–12 months: 9.5–14 hours of sleep
1–3 years: 12–14 hours of sleep
3–5 years: 11–13 hours of sleep
5–12 years: 10–11 hours of sleep
13–18 years: 9 hours of sleep
Pretty amazing that even 18 year olds need 9 hours of sleep per night?! How many are truly getting the zzz’s they need in our fast-paced, 24-7 lifestyle?
How much sleep do teens need?
As mentioned above, teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep a night, but between school, sports, and other activities, they typically only get 6–7! ? James B Maas, a Cornell psychologist and leading sleep researcher, observed that most teenagers are “walking zombies.”
In this study, Dr. Mary Carskadon found that students with an early school start time were pathologically sleepy just an hour later.
Teens who went to bed later than midnight were 24% more likely to suffer from depression and were 20% more likely to have reported suicidal thoughts than teens who were in bed by 10 pm.
The problem can be a circular one, since, “The data suggest reduced quantity of sleep increases risk for major depression, which in turn increases risks for decreased sleep.” (source)
And small changes can make big impacts: Just 19 minutes of extra sleep in the two teen groups showed a marked improvement in daytime functioning.
So even though older kids may act like their adults and resist sleep like the plague, you can see how many hours of sleep they get is so vital for their well-being!
How many hours of sleep do you need?
All this talk about bedtime might have you thinking, what about me?! How much sleep do adults—and more specifically, exhausted parents—need? ?
We all know sleep deprivation is not good. Have you ever seen those videos of sleep-deprived test subjects driving like they’re drunk when they’re actually just sleep-deprived? In fact, nearly 7,000 people die in the U.S. from falling alseep while driving, making it the second highest cause of fatal car accidents behind drunk driving.
Sleep deprivation affects us in a multitude of ways. Mood. Immunity. Energy. Patience. Coordination. Brain function. The list goes on and on. More than pretty much anyone, parents are a universally sleep-deprived bunch! But we need our sleep, too.
Getting quality sleep, while not always easy to get, is crucial to prioritize. We’ll share more tips on getting better (and more!) zzz’s later in this post.
Signs children aren’t getting enough sleep
But back to the kids. How can you tell if they aren’t getting enough sleep? Here are some signs…
- quick to anger
- lack of enthusiasm
One study found that there were negative effects (and behaviors) in children after just four nights with only one hour less sleep per night.
Clumsiness and lack of coordination also become a problem. In a Chinese study, children who had less than 9 hours of sleep per night were more prone to injuries that required medical attention (source).
Sleep deprivation can also manifest as trouble performing at school, as well as attention issues. Lack of sleep can be misdiagnosed as ADHD, since they both share some similar symptoms. And children who do have attention and hyperactivity issues found that their symptoms improved with even just 27 minutes more sleep per night (source).
How can I help my child get enough sleep?
Talking about how much sleep your child needs doesn’t do much good if they can’t seem to get in bed. Establishing regular bedtime routines that are firm and consistent is key. The sooner you can start helping your child develop these habits to ease into bedtime, the better.
How to establish regular bedtimes
A good night starts with a good morning. Establish regular morning wake-up times, chore times, dinner times, etc. Kids thrive on routine, and having other predictable rituals during the day helps prepare them for a nighttime routine.
When it comes to your nighttime ritual, start up to 1 hour before bedtime to help your child unwind and rest. As your child gets into a better sleep rhythm, you can decrease nighttime routine to 30 minutes.
A nighttime routine can include:
- Story time
- Putting PJs on
- Taking a bath
- Family prayer time
- Daily reflection
- Light exercise/stretching
- A small cup of chamomile tea
- Playing soft, relaxing background music
- Rubbing relaxing essential oils onto the feet (with a carrier oil)
- Diffusing kid-safe relaxing essential oils in their bedroom
Older kids and teens can follow the same basic routine. However, they may want to skip the bath and have solo reading time.
Tips for a successful bedtime routine
- Be consistent and united. If the kids know that dad will be more lenient on the bedtime routine and rules than mom, it can unravel your plans.
- Get the timing right. If your child is going to bed much later than they should, then move their bedtime back by 15 minute increments each night until you’re at the goal.
- Dim the lights. Melatonin, our master hormone that regulates sleep cycles, is disrupted by exposure to bright (or blue) light at night. Since melatonin actually helps us feel sleepy, it’s important not to mess with this hormone! Support its production by dimming lights an hour before bedtime or when the sun goes down and limiting technology. Use low light lamps in the evening rather than bright overhead ones. Furthermore, get your kids into the natural light outside first thing in the morning to support their circadian rhythm or day/night internal clock.
- Listen to quiet and relaxing music during the hour before bed. This can be playing in the background while your child is reading, brushing teeth, etc.
- Relax with a bath. Add some Epsom salts with lavender or chamomile essential oils to their bath. Both the magnesium from the salt, and the oils, are calming.
- Consider a pajama walk. Harley Rotbart, author of No Regrets Parenting, suggests a nightly pajama walk (weather permitting.) Get your kids completely ready for bed: teeth brushed, story read, and yes, pajamas on. Then take a quiet stroll through the neighborhood (10-15 minutes). The fresh air can put kids in a calm state, making them ready to hit the hay.
- Listen to a guided meditation. This recording doesn’t have to have a new age vibe, it just needs to help the brain relax. “Goodnight Dear Brain (yawn) Good Night” narrated by actress Jennifer Garner is good for little ones. Beta brain waves soundtracks are also helpful, and emulate the frequencies that our brains use to relax.
- Reflect on the day. Write or draw about the day in a goodnight journal to help children unwind their thoughts for the day. (I like this one.) You can also do nighttime prayers, blessing family members, friends, teachers. (I like this daily devotional for kids.)
But really, the most important thing to accomplish in a nighttime routine is to get your kids to bed on time. Start EARLY to be sure that your child doesn’t get overtired and battles you every step of the way.
If you capture your child in the drowsy window (and not overtired window), you should be golden.
What can I do if my child isn’t getting enough sleep?
Bedtime routines help your child get the shut-eye they need, but even the best efforts will be met with resistance sometimes. Common stalling techniques include:
- asking for (another) glass of water,
- wanting one more story,
- insisting on a snack,
- or requesting you stay in the room with them.
If their needs are met and they’re just trying to delay sleep, then here are some solutions to try…
Get kids to stay in bed (for real)
- Stuffed animals, blankets, and other security items can be helpful for little ones. This study showed that stuffed animals helped to reduce nighttime fears.
- Background noise, like a humming fan, can help cover little noises that might wake them up.
- Set a timer and give them a light back scratch, the soft touch can really set in the sleepy eyes
- Use an “anti-monster spray” with calming essential oils. Bergamot, lavender, vetiver, and ylang ylang are a few kid-safe choices.
- If they’ve already had their needs met, and they just can’t seem to stay in bed, return them to bed and assure them that everything is ok.
- If your child is waking up with bad dreams, have them imagine their fear as something silly instead—like that monster has silly purple hair and stars as eyes.
- Give them something to look forward to in the morning, like a yummy breakfast, special show or fun playdate.
- Explain how they need their rest to grow strong, this works especially well with boys. Talk about how they literally grow bigger and stronger while sleeping and they don’t want to short-change their bodies.
- Go through a list of their friends one-by-one and tell them how they are all sleeping, peer pressure works!
Some things not to do…
- Reward your child for staying in bed. Giving stickers and other small prizes for doing something they are supposed to do for basic self-care can set up a bad precedent.
- Don’t lock their door to keep them in. This can make them afraid and also poses a fire hazard.
- Don’t use the bedroom for time-outs or punishment. Use the space to play with your child, read, and spend quality time together. This way they’ll associate that space with good memories, which makes for an easier time sleeping.
If all else fails, you can try a more non-conventional way to get your kids to sleep: Let them be involved with choosing how and when they go to bed. See how one mom successfully uses this strategy here.
What to skip for a successful bedtime
- Avoid caffeine later in the day, or even better, nix it all together. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children skip this stimulant entirely. Keep in mind that chocolate contains caffeine so no chocolate cake after dinner!
- Avoid sweet snacks right before bed. So you don’t have to vend off a sugar high, skip the treats after dinner. Instead, chose calming, calcium-rich snacks like warm milk, yogurt, and cheese. I’ve used this concoction with much success! You want to keep nighttime eating on the light side so the body isn’t uncomfortably full before bed.
- Stop screen time well before bed time, as this can disrupt the circadian rhythms that tell our body it’s time to sleep. The stimulation from video games and movies can also get them rowdy and overactive.
- Avoid bright lights. As mentioned above, since blue light disrupts melatonin production, keep the lights dim before bedtime for better zzz’s.
- Get rid of the night-light. As mentioned earlier, light while sleeping confuses the brain and disrupts sleep. If your child protests no night light, you can keep it on until they fall asleep and then turn off. Or, look into these amber bulb night lights since they don’t disrupt melatonin production.
What do I do about sleep when we’re on vacation?
Parents may have a hard time maintaining the typical school year schedule on family vacation or during summer break. These tips will help keep your kids well rested, even when regular routines get disrupted.
- Have a quiet reading time, or rest with your children if they’re unable to nap in a strange place.
- Try not to rush the typical bedtime routine so that children don’t feel anxious over the changes.
- If you don’t normally co-sleep, this may be a good time to try it when the surroundings aren’t as familiar for little ones.
- Bring along familiar items, like a favorite book and stuffed animal.
- Keep that 1 hour of wind down time as a sacred space for your child to get ready for bed. It may mean leaving the holiday party a little earlier, or taking time out to go put your child to bed with their regular routine.
- Use blackout curtains, or hang towels up over the windows so that the room is dark for better sleep rhythms. This is especially helpful during the long days of summer.
- If traveling to a different time zone, start adjusting your child’s bedtime schedule a few days before vacation time.
By staying up late, you’ll likely be making up for it by sleeping in the next day. Help your kids see that there are more fun activities for them to do during the daylight hours, and that they’re actually missing out on that when they try to fit too much in at night.
If you do let your kids stay up late or sleep in, keep it a reasonable amount of time. Staying up 3 hours later than usual can really throw off their schedule. If your kids stay up later than usual during vacation time, then when things return to normal, slowly get them back onto their regular schedule.
Kids, sleep, and the bottom line
Do your best to establish a regular routine that works well for your family. Life isn’t perfect, and sometimes despite even your best efforts, bedtime plans unravel—and that’s ok. It takes some work, but with consistency, your little ones will drift off to sleep (and stay there!) before you know it.
How about ❤ YOU ❤?
I would love to hear your experiences, particularly…
- What does your bedtime routine look like?
- Does your child act different without adequate sleep?
- What are your best bedtime success tips?