Babies, toddlers, and children require far more sleep than adults; however, much like adults, how much sleep they requires varies from child to child.
Getting enough sleep is a crucial part of your child’s health and development. We can see how rapidly they develop physically as we watch them grow taller and stronger every day. With this physical growth comes other milestones that we recognise and celebrate, such as learning to differentiate colours, recognise new words, or throw a ball accurately in the backyard.
These accomplishments seem to happen all too quickly for parents, and that pace is precisely why sleep is such an important part of your child’s journey.
How Does Sleep Support My Child’s Development?
One of the most noticeable ways that sleep benefits children is that it helps them to be alert and attentive throughout their waking hours. If your child is groggy or fatigued from not getting enough sleep, then they will be less receptive to learning new information and will have more trouble staying focused.
Conversely, a well-rested child can absorb new information, interact cheerfully with their peers and teachers, and react to the world around them with curiosity.
However the benefits of getting enough sleep don’t stop there. While your child is peacefully asleep at night, their mind is hard at work accomplishing a number of tasks critical to their physical and mental growth, including:
- Repairing and regrowing tissues and nerve connections
- Building and strengthening bones and muscles
- Boosting the immune system
- Solidifying memories and sorting through information absorbed during the day.
This means that even if your child seems to be perfectly awake and alert during the day they could still be missing out on crucial developments if they are not getting enough sleep each night.
How Much Sleep Should My Child Be Getting?
Babies, of course, require the most sleep – somewhere between 14 and 17 hours is recommended, though some babies may require more. Luckily the amount of sleep that your child needs decreases as they get older!
There is not a “one size fits all” number for how much sleep children need at every age. Each child is unique, growing and learning at a different pace, and as such even children the same age can require drastically different amounts of sleep each night. However, as a rule, you can follow some generally accepted guidelines:
- Toddlers should be sleeping between 10 and 15 hours each night
- Preschoolers require between 9 and 14 hours of sleep.
This is a very wide range, and for some children and hour more or less than these windows may still be perfectly healthy. So how is a parent to know whether their child is sleeping too much or too little?
How Can I Tell If My Child Is Getting Enough Sleep?
When most parents think about the telltale signs of an under-rested child, their minds will immediately picture things like big yawns, rubbed eyes, or meltdowns near bedtime. These are, of course, a few signs that your child needs to sleep, but they are far from the only indicators. If your child is consistently not sleeping enough then you may only experience these indicators infrequently.
If you’re worried that your toddler is not sleeping enough, be on the lookout for symptoms like these:
- Consistent whining or fussiness, especially in the late afternoon
- Hyperactive behaviour
- Withdrawn social behaviour, or unwillingness to share or play nicely
- Snoring while they are asleep
- Consistently falling asleep during short car trips.
Older children, all the way through primary school, may exhibit some of these as well as slightly different symptoms, such as:
- Falling asleep at inappropriate or unpredictable times
- Hyperactive behaviour
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning
- Short attention span
- Lack of motivation or interest in activities
- Academic struggles, or consistent fatigue during school hours or while doing homework
- Consistently falling asleep during short car rides
- Experiences snoring or restless at night
- Begins to have nightmares or night terrors.
Some of these symptoms may seem a little counterintuitive. For example, how could a hyperactive child be fatigued? Shouldn’t they be tired if they are not getting enough sleep?
The answer to this question is simple: When your child grows tired, their natural impulse is to fight through it to continue to participate in whatever activities are going on, and this impulse can actually lead to an influx of adrenaline that causes them to become hyperactive. This causes your child to appear to be full of energy when they are completely exhausted beneath the surface.
This increase in adrenaline can also have further unintended consequences, such as making it more difficult for your child to stay asleep once they’ve been put to bed. This is just one of many reasons that the consistency of your family’s bedtime routine is critical for your child’s sleeping health.
If your child becomes energised just before bedtime you should still put them to bed as usual rather than allowing them to stay up later in order to “tire them out.” This is particularly important because the quality of their sleep may be of lower quality than usual. Your child may need a slightly longer nap the next day to be fully rested.
Snoring may also seem like an unlikely indicator of poor sleeping. After all, isn’t snoring a sign of deep sleep? And isn’t it a perfectly normal phenomenon among both children and adults?
You would be correct that snoring is a completely natural occurrence, and in some cases is not at all an indicator of poor sleep. However heavy snoring could be a sign that your child experiences sleep apnea. Some children will simply grow out of this as they age; others may lead to behavioural issues or chronic hyperactivity as a result of fatigue.
How Can I Improve The Quality Of My Child’s Sleeping Habits?
If your child struggles to sleep well throughout the night, or if they exhibit signs of fatigue and under-rest throughout the day, then take comfort in knowing that recognising this is the first step to helping them to sleep better. There are plenty of tips and tricks available to parents that can be used to help your child sleep each night:
1. Establish and maintain a consistent bedtime routine
Consistency is a key aspect of creating a healthy sleeping schedule for your child. There are a number of ways to establish a regular routine. The most important of these is to set a regular bedtime each evening, and to stick to it even when your child claims that they are not sleepy.
You could also consider designating a special stuffed animal or blanket to be used specifically as a “bedtime buddy” or ensure that their bedtime habits, such as reading a book together or using a night light, are consistent each evening.
2. Avoid electronics before bedtime
Studies show that using electronics (TVs, laptops, tablets, and cell phones) in the hours leading up to bedtime has negative effects on sleep, even for adults. The blue light emitted from the screens suppresses the chemical that helps us to fall asleep and stay asleep, and also keeps the mind alert rather than helping it to wind down for the night.
Substituting an activity such as reading or drawing for watching TV at night can make it easier for your child to fall asleep and increase the quality of their sleep as well.
3. Keep naps outside of evening hours
Letting your child sleep too late in the day can make it more difficult for them to fall asleep at night. Children require fewer naps as they get older, and sometimes taking a longer nap later in the afternoon may prove to be more beneficial than taking two smaller naps. Pay attention to your child’s mood and activities to establish a nap schedule that grows with them.
4. Keep the lights off
Both children and adults sleep most deeply in complete darkness. Consider using blackout curtains in your child’s room, and encourage them to sleep with their door closed if leaving it open will allow light from other parts of the house into their room.
If your child is afraid of the dark then they may struggle with sleeping in complete darkness at first; if this is the case, you could try using a very soft night light or setting one in the hallway that will turn itself off after a certain amount of time.
5. Avoid sugary snacks after dinner
This includes both typical sugary snacks, such as sweets or cookies, as well as foods with natural sugars such as fruits or fruit juice. However, these types of snacks can energise your child. If your child wants a snack before bedtime, try foods with a blend of both protein and carbs, such as cheese and crackers or a hard-boiled egg.
These are just a few small steps you can take to improve your child’s sleeping habits! Every child is unique, and your child’s bedtime routine could be completely different than that of their best friend.
The key is to be consistent and to enforce your family’s bedtime rules and habits each night; children rely heavily on predictability, so knowing what to expect each evening can go a long way towards helping them to establish a sleep schedule that keeps them happy and healthy.