If you are a parent, you may be quite interested in learning about how sleep needs may change throughout childhood and into adolescence. From the fragmented sleep of infancy, to the waning of naps in children entering school, to the transition to adult sleep in teens, sleep is a dynamic behavior that alters as we develop and mature. Discover how much sleep your child needs and how to anticipate the changes that are characteristic of each phase.
Every parent can identify the defining characteristic of an infant’s sleep: fragmentation. Newborns sleep in episodes that last 2 to 5 hours. They then will have periods of wakefulness that last 1 to 3 hours, often triggered by hunger. These alternating states repeat throughout the day and night, leading to disruption of parents’ sleep. Unfortunately, infants do not differentiate between day and night.
Thankfully, this pattern does not persist long into childhood. By 8 to 12 weeks of age, these short episodes of sleep and wakefulness become consolidated into longer periods. More sleep occurs at night and more wakefulness occurs during the day, suggesting the development of their circadian rhythm.
By the age of 4 to 6 months, most babies will have two or three prolonged naps during the day that last 2 to 4 hours. In addition, they will begin sleeping eight hours overnight. This nocturnal sleep is often disrupted by awakenings that may occur 5 or 6 times each night. At this age, the four sleep stages can become recognized on electroencephalography (EEG).
Within the next year, sleep begins to normalize, shifting towards adult sleep patterns. At 12 months, many infants only nap one or two times per day, often in the late morning or early afternoon. These naps become shorter, lasting only 1 to 2 hours. Around 18 months of age, the period of sleep during the night begins to stabilize at 8 to 10 hours. Daytime naps reduce to once a day.
Pre-School and School-Aged Children
For children who are 3 to 5 years old, the average amount of sleep needed is 11 to 12 hours. Many kids will stop napping as they transition into school. Older children who are 6 to 12 years old may require 10 to 11 hours of sleep. They tend to be tired around 8:00 or 9:00 PM, and they are often wide awake early. A transition to wanting to stay up and awaken later occurs between fourth and eighth grades. Napping in this age group becomes an abnormal occurrence that may suggest insufficient sleep or a sleep disorder.
As with many things, the transition through adolescence is a process of maturation, including the development of adult sleep. The timing and amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep reaches adult levels at this time. The amount of sleep required by teens ranges from 8.5 to 10 hours. The timing of sleep may be delayed, with a desire to go to sleep and wake up at a time that is sometimes later than socially acceptable. This may present as delayed sleep phase syndrome. Numerous studies have shown that teens actually benefit from later school start times to accommodate this natural delay. Moreover, there are specific tips that might help teens to sleep better.
We can help our children through these changes in their sleep needs and timing by recognizing what to expect and making allowances for the variance from adult sleep patterns.
Durmer, JS et al. "Pediatric Sleep Medicine". Continuum. Neurol 2007; 13(3):153-200.