Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 19, 2021

We All Need Sleep

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We spend about a third of our lives asleep. That’s a good thing. Sleep helps keep our brain, body, and immune system healthy. But from birth to older age, sleep patterns change throughout our life.  

Newborns and Infants

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They spend most of their time -- about 70% -- asleep. Experts think all that shut-eye is what helps them learn and grow. Newborns tend to snooze for 2 to 4 hours at a time, up to 16 to 18 hours a day. They also have more active sleep than adults. That means they start out in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep instead of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. They might twitch a lot, too. That’s because the part of their brain that stops them from moving during dreams is still forming.   

3 to 12 Months Old

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A baby’s circadian rhythm, or wake and sleep cycle, falls into a more regular pattern when they’re a few months old. Their bodies start to make hormones like melatonin and cortisol. These chemicals tell them to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. Babies may start to conk out for long stretches -- 6 hours or more -- anywhere between 6 months to 12 months old. They start to spend more time in deep sleep. And their body temperature starts to follow a 24-hour cycle.

Toddlers to Preschool Age

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Kids ages 1 to 2 need about 11-14 hours of sleep every day. Children ages 3 to 5 need about an hour less, or 10-13 hours. Both groups sleep mostly at night, but they might take naps during the day. Some preschoolers may skip daytime naps in favor of an earlier bedtime.

Young Children

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They don’t need as much sleep as they get older. Kids ages 6 to 12 should get about 9 to 12 hours every night. When they do snooze, children get more deep sleep than when they were younger. Certain sleep habits might show up around the time they're old enough for school. This includes “night owl” or “early bird” tendencies.

Teenagers

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They need at least 8 to 10 hours of rest every night. But sleep patterns shift around this age. Lots of teens want to stay up at night and sleep later in the morning. That often conflicts with having to get up for school. Many teenagers don’t get enough sleep. That lack of ZZZs can make it hard for them to focus at school or control their emotions.

Adults

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Your sleep needs may be different than someone else your age. But most people 18-60 need 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye a night. And 1 in 3 U.S. adults don’t get that. It’s normal to miss out on sleep every now and then. But try to prioritize a good night’s rest. Not getting enough sleep raises your risk of all kinds of health issues. That includes depression, memory problems, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Older Adults

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People 65 and older need about 7-8 hours of sleep a night. That’s less than any other age group. There are several reasons why your sleep patterns change as you get older. You make less melatonin, which can affect your sleep-wake cycle. You may start to get up and go to bed a little earlier. The type and quality of your sleep also changes. You’ll spend less time in deep sleep, which can make it easier to wake up at night. That sometimes opens the door to insomnia and other sleep problems.

Health Conditions and Naps

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Compared to younger adults, older people are more likely to nap during the day. Some adults 75 to 84 say they get so sleepy they can’t do daily activities. This isn’t a normal part of aging. It might happen because your circadian rhythm is off. But your odds of daytime sleepiness go way up if you have another health problem. That includes ongoing pain, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea. Prostate and bladder issues may cause lots of nighttime bathroom runs, interrupting sleep.

Reproductive Changes

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Women report more sleep problems than men. These issues usually show up when female hormones are in flux. That can happen at different stages of life. Examples include shifts in your menstrual cycle that can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle and having insomnia or bad dreams the week before your period starts. Pregnancy hormones and the months after birth (postpartum) can both disturb sleep. You might also have trouble falling or staying asleep during perimenopause. That’s the 4-8 years  before menopause starts.

Menopause and Sleep

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Hormonal changes alone can affect your sleep. But so can other symptoms that come with menopause, like hot flashes. These are fast and intense waves of body heat that last 1 to 5 minutes. They can happen at night, making you so warm and sweaty that you wake up. Tell your doctor if this happens a lot. They might suggest lifestyle changes, at-home remedies, hormone therapy, or medication.

How to Get the Sleep You Need

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You might need to make a few lifestyle changes and practice good sleep hygiene habits. These include going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and making sure your room is cool, dark, and quiet. If it doesn’t get better, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) or medication may help. Talk to your doctor if you’re always sleepy during the day or take naps without trying. Tell them if you wake up a lot at night or snore or stop breathing in your sleep, too.

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SOURCES:

 

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research, Colten, H.R., Altevogt, B.M. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem, National Academies Press (US), 2006.

Nature and Science of Sleep: “Short-and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption,” “Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review.” 

Infant and Child Development: “Sleep and Infant Learning.”

HealthySleep (Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School): “Changes in Sleep with Age.”

Pediatrics: “Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: “Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations: A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.”

KidsHealth.org: “All About Sleep.”

CDC: “Sleep and Sleep Disorders: Sleep and Sleep Disorders,” “Sleep and Sleep Disorders: Getting Enough Sleep?”

FamilyDoctor.org: “Sleep Changes in Older Adults.”

Neuron: “Sleep and Human Aging.”

Sleep Medicine Research: “Sleep and Women’s Health.”

The North American Menopause Society: “Menopause 1010: A primer for the perimenopausal.”