Children and Sleep Habits

Throughout early childhood, sleep is vital and is the main action performed by the brain, having a direct impact on both physical and mental development. A child will spend approximately 40% of their childhood sleeping. In fact, at two years old, a toddler will have spent more time of their life asleep than awake.

Far from being an unproductive part of life, sleep has a crucial role in development and directly influences all facets of a child’s life. It contributes to a healthy immune system, as well as a healthy weight by balancing the “appetite” hormones, and regulates mood and productivity levels.

There are two different stages of sleep:

  • Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep - During this stage of sleep, there is an increase of blood supply to the muscles, energy is restored, tissue growth and repair occur and hormones important to growth and development are released. NREM sleep occurs for up to 75% of the night and is the deepest, most restorative sleep.
  • Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep - When in REM sleep, the brain is active and dreaming occurs. During this stage, the muscles are temporarily paralyzed and breathing and heart rates become irregular. This type of sleep takes place for 1/4 of the night.

Newborns and Sleep (1-2 months)

Newborns sleep around the clock for the first few months of their life, their sleep-wake cycle occurring alongside their need to be fed, changed and nurtured. For 10.5-18 hours a day, newborns sleep on an ‘irregular’ schedule with periods of wakefulness which can last between 1-3 hours. Their sleep is considered irregular because they do not yet have an internal biological clock, also known as a 'circadian rhythm', which sets their sleep patterns. Their sleep periods can last from just a few minutes to several hours at a time. Newborns are often physically active while asleep, twitching their limbs, suckling, smiling or appearing restless.

There are a number of different ways newborns express their need to sleep, whether by fussing, crying, or rubbing their eyes. Babies should be put to bed when they are sleepy but not yet asleep, as they are more likely to fall asleep quickly and can learn how to put themselves to sleep. To encourage a newborn to spend more time awake, you can expose them to light and noise and play with them during the daytime. During the evening, the environment should be less active, quieter and dimmer.

Sleep Tips for Newborn Babies:

  • Learn to identify signs of sleepiness and observe and note their sleep patterns.
  • Put the newborn to sleep when they appear drowsy, but have yet to fall asleep.
  • Babies should sleep on their backs, away from toys or blankets.
  • Try to encourage sleep at nighttime.

Infants and Sleep (3-11 months)

By the time an infant is 6 months old, nighttime feedings are no longer a necessity. About 70-80% of babies will sleep through the night by the time they are 9 months. Infants usually need 9-12 hours of sleep during the night and naps during the day which can last between 30 minutes and 2 hours. These naps commonly occur 1-4 times daily, with fewer naps needed as they reach 12 months old.

Infants who are put to bed when they are sleepy but not completely asleep learn to become “self-soothing”. These infants tend to fall asleep independently, as well as put themselves back to sleep if they wake up at night. Those who are used to a parent or caregiver immediately responding will become “signalers” and cry for attention at nighttime when they wake up.

Social and developmental issues can impact the quality of sleep for babies. Illness or increased motor development can disrupt sleep, as well as separation anxiety. Studies have shown that infants who feel safe with a parent or caregiver are more inclined to experience less sleeping issues.

Sleep Tips for Infants:

  • Develop consistent daytime and bedtime schedules.
  • Implement a regular and enjoyable bedtime routine.
  • Make the bedroom sleep-friendly.
  • Encourage the infant to fall asleep independently and become self-soothing.

Toddlers and Sleep (1-3 years)

During a 24 hour period, toddlers need approximately 12-14 hours of sleep. Naptimes decrease once they reach 18 months and they should then begin needing only one daytime nap lasting 1-3 hours. Naps should be in the afternoon and not too close to bedtime so as not to interfere with their nightly sleep schedule.

Toddlers are likely to experience problems sleeping such as resisting going to bed and waking up frequently at night. Fear of the dark and nightmares are incredibly common at this age.

Different factors contribute to trouble sleeping, such as the toddler’s drive for independence and their increase in motor, cognitive and social abilities. Sleep problems can also stem from their ability to get out of bed, separation anxiety and an overactive imagination. Daytime sleepiness or behavior problems may be a sign of poor sleep.

Sleep Tips for Toddlers:

  • Maintain a set sleep/wake time and have a consistent bedtime schedule.
  • Set limits that are clearly communicated and enforced.
  • Encourage the use of a security blanket or stuffed animal to help the child feel safe.

Preschoolers and Sleep (3-5 years)

Preschoolers require about 11-13 hours of sleep nightly and most will not need naps after they are 5 years old. Similar to toddlers, they may experience difficulty falling asleep and frequently wake up during the night. Preschoolers commonly experience nighttime fears, nightmares, and may begin sleepwalking.

Sleep Tips for Preschoolers:

  • Maintain a set sleep/wake time and have a consistent bedtime schedule.
  • Keep the television out of a child’s room and limit TV time to less than 2 hours per day.
  • Incorporate a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Keep their bedroom cool, quiet and dark and associate the bedroom with sleep only.

School-aged Children and Sleep (5-12 years)

At this age, children need about 10-11 hours of sleep. During this time, there is an increased demand on a child’s time from school, sports, or other extracurricular activities. School-aged children also become more interested in TV, computers and the Internet, all of which can disrupt sleep and cause nightmares. Watching TV, in particular, has been linked to bedtime resistance, difficulty falling asleep and anxiety which can result in poor sleep quality. School-aged children also tend to drink more caffeinated beverages, such as soda, which can lead to difficulty falling asleep.

Sleep problems and disorders are more common at this age, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Poor or inadequate sleep can cause mood or behavioral problems, such as ADHD or cognitive problems that impact a child’s learning ability.

Sleep Tips for School-Aged Children:

  • Teach children about healthy sleep practices and proper sleep hygiene.
  • Put an emphasis on a regular sleep/wake time and bedtime schedule.
  • Keep the child’s room cool, dark and quiet.
  • Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine.

Learn more about School-Aged Children and Sleep

To find out more about children and sleeping habits, please call The Los Angeles Sleep Study Institute at 1-855-690-0563.