When children don’t get enough sleep, their health and well-being suffer. “We continue to learn more about the science and importance of sleep, but it’s clear that sleep is an essential part of a healthy routine, especially for children,” says Caroline Okorie, MD, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist at Stanford Children’s Health.
Indeed, adequate sleep is important to ensure that children reach their developmental milestones. “Sleep is important to facilitate learning, improve attention, and consolidate memories,” Dr. Okorie notes.
Sleep also impacts your child’s physical and mental health. “Lack of sleep has been linked to slower metabolism,3 higher risk for infection and illness,4
and growth issues, as well as difficulty regulating emotions and staying focused,”2 says Rachel Mitchell, CEO of My Sweet Sleeper, a maternity and sleep consulting company. “When children get adequate sleep, they tend to be in a better mood (for babies they may appear less fussy), their bodies are able to fight off infection better, and their ability to learn and remember improves.”
Even though sleep needs will change as your child grows, the reasons it is critical remain the same, Dr. Okorie notes. “Sleep is very important at all ages of childhood as sleep is important for growth, learning, development, and overall quality of life.”
What Too Much Sleep Looks Like
While it’s rarer than the alternative, it’s possible for kids to oversleep. “Children who get too much sleep may show signs of this such as having trouble falling asleep at night, waking really early in the morning (before 6 a.m.), and waking frequently throughout the night when they didn’t previously,” explains Mitchell.
The main culprit of this, according to Welch, is when older kids take naps at daycare or preschool that they don’t need, disrupting their nighttime sleep.
What Too Little Sleep Looks Like
The much more common scenario is children who aren’t getting enough sleep. “Consider if it is a struggle for you to wake your child in the morning or if your child has trouble paying attention in school or during activities,” suggests Dr. Okorie. “Poor attention, irritability, and increased emotionality can be seen in kids of all ages who are not getting adequate sleep.”
If they are consistently failing to sleep enough, adds Dr. Okorie, it may be a sign of a more serious sleep problem. “Each child is different, but if a child is several hours outside of the typical sleep time duration, then it might be worth checking in with their primary care provider or pediatrician to see if there are signs of a sleep disorder or other problem. Too little sleep can mean a sleep disruption.”
0 to 3 Months
While newborns will spend most of their time sleeping during these first few months, it may not necessarily feel that way. “Newborns’ sleep cycles are short, so it may seem that they are constantly going in and out of sleep, which is developmentally normal,” says Mitchell. “In this stage, babies are much sleepier than at any other stage as they adjust to the outside world and need their sleep to support their rapid development.”
Since newborns are frequently going in and out of sleep over the course of a 24-hour period, they don’t have a “bedtime” yet. In addition to needing sleep to fuel their growth and development, adequate sleep may help limit fussiness in newborns. “Babies may be more irritable, struggle to recover from negative stimuli, or struggle to feed if they aren’t sleeping enough,” notes Dr. Okorie.
4 to 12 Months
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), babies between 4 and 12 months should sleep for 12 to 16 hours per 24-hour period, including naps.6 “Children may start to consolidate sleep as early infants, having longer periods of sleep at night with two to three naps during the day,” Dr. Okorie adds. “Signs of sleepiness include rubbing of the eyes and yawning.”
If you decide to use sleep training, you may set a bedtime during this phase. Or you may take your cues from your baby’s behavior.
1 to 2 Years
For children 1 to 2 years old, the AASM suggests 11 to 14 hours of sleep per 24-hour period, including naps.6 They may drop down to just one or two naps per day during this phase. Since kids are so active during these years, they are more likely to become overtired, Dr. Okorie says. “This can show as hyperactivity, irritability, and increased emotionality. They may seem clingier and demand an increased amount of attention.”
3 to 5 Years
AASM recommendations shift only slightly during the 3 to 5-year-old stage, down to 10 to 13 hours of sleep per 24-hour period.6 The primary reason: Most children have dropped their naps by 5-years-old, explains Mitchell, and instead are sleeping only during the night.
Instead of determining a set bedtime, Welch suggests keeping it fluid. “Bedtimes should be based on two things: what time the child woke up in the morning and the amount of time they’re awake between last nap and bedtime,” she says. Then you can determine the best time for them to hit the hay so that they benefit from the recommended number of hours spent snoozing.
6 to 12 Years
School-aged children should sleep nine to 12 hours per night, according to the AASM. If they aren’t getting enough, you’re going to notice.
Just like when they’re younger, it’s best to determine the correct bedtime based on your child’s day. “Consider the time that your child needs to wake up for school or other activities, and then count backward from there,” suggests Dr. Okorie. “The bedtime should be early enough to allow kids to get sufficient sleep before the desired wake up time.”
It is during the teen years that the AASM sleep recommendations plateau at eight to ten hours of sleep per night. “Many teenagers are not getting the sleep they need due to late-night activities and increased social commitments as well as technology,” says Mitchell. “It is important to remember that they still need adequate sleep for healthy brain development.”
If their overscheduled lives or phones are impacting their sleep, it’s going to show up in their behavior. “For older children, when they don’t get enough sleep, they may have trouble focusing, communicating, and regulating their emotions which can indicate they aren’t getting the sleep they need,” Mitchell says.7 What’s more, signs that you may chalk up to them getting older or rebelling may actually be due to simply being overtired.
“Adolescents may show increased sleepiness during the day and may find it hard to focus on schoolwork or activities,” says Dr. Okorie. “They may also seem to lose interest in previously enjoyable activities and may show signs of increased anxiety or low mood.” The brain continues to grow and mature well into the 20s, so it’s important to make sure that even your teenager is getting enough shuteye.