Why is sleep important?

Sleep restores children physically. It helps them learn and remember things, and it boosts immunity. And sleep helps children grow. For example, children’s bodies produce growth hormone when they’re asleep. Children often need more sleep at times of rapid growth.

Children of all ages need to get enough sleep so they can play, learn and concentrate during the day.

Sleep at different ages

Babies, children and teenagers need different amounts of sleep. Also, when babies and children sleep changes as they get older.

For example, as babies grow they begin to sleep less during the day and more at night. And children generally need less sleep as they grow older.

Children’s sleep needs and patterns vary, so the information below is just a guide. Your child’s sleep might be different.

Babies under 6 months: when and how much they sleep

Newborns sleep on and off during the day and night.

By three months, babies start to develop night and day sleep patterns, and they tend to start sleeping more during the night.

At 3-6 months, babies might start moving towards a pattern of 2-3 daytime sleeps of up to two hours each. They might still wake at least once at night.

Active sleep and quiet sleep
Babies under six months have two different kinds of sleep – active sleep and quiet sleep.

In active sleep your baby moves around. You might see jerking, twitching or sucking. At birth, half of babies’ sleep is active sleep.

In quiet sleep your baby is still and breathing evenly.

Babies move through active and quiet sleep in cycles that last about 30-50 minutes. They might wake up after a sleep cycle and need help getting back to sleep.

Babies 6-12 months: when and how much they sleep

Sleep during the night
From about six months, babies have their longest sleeps at night.

Most babies are ready for bed between 6 pm and 10 pm. They usually take less than 30 minutes to get to sleep, but about 1 in 10 babies takes longer.

Most babies can sleep for a period of up to six hours or more at night.

Almost two-thirds of babies wake only once during the night and need an adult to settle them back to sleep. About 1 in 10 babies calls out 3-4 times a night.

More than a third of parents say their babies have problems with sleep at this age.

Sleep during the day
Most babies aged 6-12 months are still having daytime naps. These naps usually last 1-2 hours. Some babies sleep longer, but up to a quarter of babies nap for less than an hour.

Children wake at night partly because they’re worried about being separated from their parents. This is normal. Children need to overcome this worry as a step towards becoming more independent sleepers.

Toddlers: when and how much they sleep

Toddlers need about 12-13 hours sleep every 24 hours. Usually this is a sleep of 10-12 hours a night, and a nap of 1-2 hours during the day.

Some toddlers aren’t keen on going to bed at night. Often this is because they’d like to stay up with the family. This is the most common sleep problem reported by parents. It peaks around 18 months and improves with age.

Less than 5% of two-year-olds wake three or more times overnight.

Preschoolers: when and how much they sleep

Children aged 3-5 years need 11-13 hours sleep a night.

Some preschoolers might also have a day nap that lasts for about an hour.

Children 5-11 years: when and how much they sleep

Children aged:

  • 5-8 years need about 10-11 hours sleep a night
  • 9-11 years need around 9-11 hours sleep a night.

From about five years of age, children no longer need a day nap so long as they’re getting enough sleep overnight.

Primary school-age children are usually tired after school and might look forward to bedtime from about 7.30 pm.

Teenagers: when and how much they sleep

Children entering puberty generally need about 8-10 hours of sleep a night to maintain the best level of alertness during the day.

Changes to the internal body clock or circadian rhythm during adolescence mean it’s normal for teenagers to want to go to bed later at night – often around 11 pm or later – then get up later in the morning.

Over 90% of adolescent children don’t get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights. Getting enough good-quality sleep is important during this period, because sleep is vital for thinking, learning and concentration skills. Lack of sleep in these years has also been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

About sleep cycles

We all cycle between different types of sleep during the night and also during long naps.

From about six months, a sleep cycle contains:

  • rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
  • non-REM sleep.

In REM sleep, your eyeballs flicker from side to side underneath your eyelids. REM sleep is also called dream sleep.

Non-REM sleep consists of deep sleep and light sleep. It’s difficult to wake a child in deep sleep. Children in light sleep wake up easily.

The amount of REM and non-REM sleep in a cycle changes throughout the night.

How sleep cycles affect children’s sleep

Children have a lot of deep non-REM sleep in the first few hours after they fall asleep. That’s why children sleep so soundly in the first few hours after they’ve gone to bed and aren’t disturbed by anything.

Children have more REM sleep and light non-REM sleep in the second half of the night. Children wake more easily from these kinds of sleep, so they might wake up more during this time than at the beginning of the night.

In the early childhood years, sleep cycles get longer as children get older. In children aged three years, sleep cycles are about 60 minutes. By about five years, sleep cycles have matured to the adult length of about 90 minutes.

Children might wake briefly at the end of each sleep cycle and not be aware of it or remember it in the morning. This is normal, and all children do it. But some children call out when they wake at the end of each sleep cycle and need help settling again.

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