You know what happens when you don’t get enough sleep: You’re less sharp and more irritable, and your reaction times slow. That’s because sleep is essential to our mental and physical health. Well, it’s vital for children, too.
It’s very important that children get the right amount of sleep at night. The younger the child, the greater the need.
Shut-eye is necessary for growth and development of the brain and the body. Sleep deprivation in children is often overlooked because it frequently manifests as hyperactivity and behavioral problems. But missing the true cause has consequences: A child who is sleep deprived might struggle academically; plus, inadequate sleep could lead to obesity.
As children grow, different factors can interfere with their sleep. Thankfully, there’s plenty you can do to make sure they get the ZZZ’s they need.
Babies (birth to 11 months)
Recommended sleep: 14 to 17 total hours per day from birth to three months; 12 to 15 total hours per day from 4 to 11 months.
Possible challenges: Babies sleep for a few hours at a time around the clock for the first few months of life. They haven’t yet adapted to the concept of night and day; to them, it’s all the same. Also, because their little tummies are so tiny, they often wake up hungry.
What to do: Be patient. Soon (OK, soon-ish), your baby will do more of his sleeping at night and be awake more during the day, usually developing a schedule that includes a couple of daytime naps. At six weeks, (s)he should sleep mostly at night, and at six months, all night without several awakenings. Always put your baby to sleep on his back. Research shows it’s the safest position.
Toddlers (1 to 2 years) & Preschoolers (3 to 5 years)
Recommended sleep: 11 to 14 total hours for toddlers; 10 to 13 total hours for preschoolers.
Possible challenges: Let’s be real: Getting young ones to go to bed can be a battle.
What to do: Building a nighttime routine is a good start. That means setting the mood for sleep with the same routine at night, such as bath, pajamas, storytime and hugs and kisses. In addition, avoid TV, computer and tablet screens within an hour of bedtime. Children at this age often take naps.
School-Age Children (6 to 13 years)
Recommended sleep: 9 to 11 hours a day.
Possible challenges: Getting a child to wind down and fall asleep might remain difficult.
What to do: Check your children’s “sleep hygiene”. Make sure the bedrooms are cool, quiet and dark. See that they avoid caffeine after 3 p.m. (it stays in the body for up to eight hours) and are not exercising too close to bedtime. If your children still aren’t settling down at night, don’t allow daytime naps.
Teenagers (14 to 17 years)
Recommended sleep: 8 to 10 hours a day.
Possible challenges: Screen time is a serious consideration for teens as well as their desire to stay up late — doing homework, watching TV or being out with friends.
What to do: Texting past bedtime can disturb sleep. Consider having one spot in the house where everyone (this includes you!) must leave cell phones and tablets overnight. Do your best to help children manage their time, and encourage consistent, reasonable bedtimes. If your teenager is lacking sleep, she should avoid driving.
Specialized care for when your child isn’t sleeping well
Poor sleep can result from a variety of issues — some of which you can manage at home with healthy sleep habits. But sometimes, a medical condition is to blame.
Similar to adults, children can have sleep disorders like sleep apnea (disrupted breathing during sleep) and restless legs syndrome (involuntary movement of the legs). In certain cases, the best way to find out what’s going on is through a sleep study.
Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center has a sleep lab to diagnose sleep-related conditions in a comfortable environment, complete with child-friendly beds and decor. For example, upon arrival to the sleep lab, children can attach electrodes to a stuffed bear to better understand and prepare for the technology used during testing.
A sleep study involves devices to monitor the child’s brain waves, breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels and body movement. Typically with one parent nearby, the child sleeps overnight and goes home around 7 a.m.
By analyzing data collected from the test, sleep specialists are able to investigate the root cause of a child’s sleep problem and work toward a solution.
Find a sleep specialist near you.
About the author
Dr. Malvika Sagar, MD, is a pediatric pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center. She is also the medical director of the pediatric sleep lab. She completed her pediatric pulmonary and sleep medicine training at Texas Children’s Hospital after studying at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
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