One of the most important things you can do for your children is to make sure they get enough sleep. "It's almost like another vaccine we can give our kids to help them fight off illness and promote physical well-being," says Cora Breuner, MD, of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That doesn't just mean sending them to bed at a certain time, although that's a big part of it. You should also make sure your children fall asleep easily, stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up refreshed so they have energy to make healthy choices during the day.
How you do that will change as your kids get older. But remember that good slumber is essential at every age, and that it will help your kids grow, learn, and stay safe, whether they're 18 months old or 18 years old.
How much sleep does my child need?
It depends on their age and their stage of development, according to guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation:
- Newborns 0 to 3 months should sleep 10 1/2 to 18 hours a day, but they don't have a regular schedule. They may sleep from a few minutes to several hours at one time.
- Babies 4 to 11 months should start to sleep through the night, for 9 to 12 hours at a time. They should also take naps throughout the day, ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
- Toddlers 1 to 2 years need about 11 to 14 hours a day. Most of this should happen at night, but they should also take a nap (or naps) during the day.
- Children 3 to 5 should get 11 to 13 hours a night. Their naps should get shorter and happen less often. Most kids don't nap past age 5.
- Kids 6 to 13 need 9 to 11 hours of shuteye. Homework and electronic devices keep kids busy at this age, so it's important to set a sleep schedule and enforce a regular bedtime routine.
- Teenagers 14 and up need 8 to 10 hours of sleep. Their circadian rhythms shift around the time they hit puberty, so they may find it hard to fall asleep as early as they used to.
Why Does Sleep Matter?
Sleep is vital whether you’re 8 or 80. It's a time for the body to recover and rebuild, and for the brain to process new information. But for children, it's extra important. Their growing brains have a harder time dealing with the effects of sleep loss, says Judith Owens, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital.
"The learning of new tasks is certainly impacted by not getting enough sleep," she says. Children learn new skills at an enormous rate, whether it's a toddler walking and talking or a high-schooler driving a car and studying for exams.
Kids who get the right amount of sleep are less likely to make unhealthy choices and have behavior problems or trouble focusing in school, Breuner says. Well-rested teen drivers are also less likely to get into car accidents. Plus, sleep also protects kids' immune systems, so they won’t get sick as easily.
What Can Parents Do?
Teach your kids the importance of sleep by making it a priority in your house. Try these tips:
Set a smart nap schedule. Younger children should nap during the day, but if they snooze within a few hours of bedtime, it could keep them up at night. Even older children can benefit from occasional late-afternoon naps if they're not getting enough sleep at night, Owens says. But keep them short -- 30 minutes at most.
Limit screen time before bed. At night, the brain naturally produces hormones that help kids (and adults) sleep. But the glow from electronic screens can confuse the brain and stop that process. Keep devices like TVs and video games out of your child's bedroom, and get them to turn off smartphones, tablets, and other screens about an hour before bed, Owens says.
Build a regular bedtime routine. Kids should get used to a relaxing wind-down routine at night so their brains and bodies know that it's time for bed. Keep them from doing anything too active or exciting during this time. Be consistent, even on weekends. "Letting kids stay up late and then sleep in is only going to make it harder to get back on schedule for the week," Breuner says. It’s OK to go bed 30 minutes later or sleep for an extra hour, she says, but don't encourage anything more than that.
Get them moving. Exercise during the day helps children sleep better at night. Running around and playing sports is great, but kids can be active in other ways, too. "Take the dog for a walk, go to the park -- just get them out of the house and get them moving," Breuner says. The CDC recommends at least 60 minutes of activity a day for all children.
Keep caffeine away. Soda, energy drinks, and coffee beverages can keep kids from falling or staying asleep -- even if they drink them hours before bedtime. "In my book, young kids shouldn't be drinking caffeine at all, and adolescents should be really strictly limited," Owens says. Watch out for chocolate before bed, too -- it also has caffeine.
Check their bedroom. Like adults, kids need cool, dark, and quiet spaces to sleep well. Make sure they aren't too hot or cold in bed, and that there are no lights or noises to keep them up. If your child is extra sensitive to noise, a fan or white noise machine may help.
Know the signs of sleepiness. Watch for clues that your kids are well rested, Owens says. Do they wake up easily in the morning when they're supposed to, or do you have to drag them out of bed for school? Are they alert and in a good mood, or do they regularly doze off or act out? If they show these signs of sleepiness during the day, take a good look at their sleep schedule or talk to their doctor about what else you can do.