How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need? Even Experts Disagree

I’m used to seeing parents having spirited debates about sleep methods. But now sleep experts are having their own debate about sleep guidelines.

A recent paper suggests that the sleep recommendations for kids are, in essence, not supported by research. The implication is that kids may not really need as much sleep as we are told. An expert’s reaction to this paper was that, in general, the guidelines are backed up by enough research to make them useful.

So what do you, the parent, make of all this? Here are two things to consider.

First, keep in mind that the sleep recommendations – such as those provided by the National Sleep Foundation – have a lot of fuzziness built into them. How fuzzy? Check these out and notice the numbers that I have italicized and bolded:

Infants (3-11 months): typically sleep 9-12 hours during the night

Toddlers (1-3 years): typically need 12-14 hours of sleep daily

Preschoolers (3-5 years): typically sleep 11-13 hours each night

Second, consider why these guidelines are so broad.  Yes, you already know the answer.  Simply put, not all kids are the same – some kids need more sleep, others need less. And that’s where we should focus our attention in this debate. These figures do come from both research and clinical practice. As broad guidelines, they are reasonable. What I suggest is that the expert debate move on to address the real need for parents: to stop talking about how much sleep kids need on average and start developing better, empirically-supported, guideposts that help parents understand how to figure out how much sleep their own child needs. If a toddler sleeps 13 hours a night, is that enough? (It’s within the guidelines). If a toddler sleeps 11 hours a night, is that problematic? (It’s outside the guidelines). The problem is that these guidelines don’t give you the answer to these questions. It’s possible the toddler getting 13 hours of sleep needs more – and the toddler getting 11 hours of sleep does not.

So where does that leave you, the parent, right now? I suggest you become familiar with a few indicators that can tell you how well your child’s sleep routine is working beyond the obvious goal of having them sleep through the night (click here to read about this in more detail). You can start looking for these during the toddler years and beyond (once sleep patterns become established):

  • Does your child get to sleep around the same time most nights? (They should)
  • Does your child get to sleep within 15-30 minutes once they are settled in and it’s clearly time to sleep? (They should)
  • Does your child wake up pretty easily in the morning – and after a nap – without lots of prompting? (They should)
  • Does it feel like it takes a long time for your child to seem alert after waking up? (It shouldn’t)
  • Does your child seem tired a lot during the day (e.g., yawning, eye rubbing, etc) – excluding nap time?  (They shouldn’t)
  • Does your child fall asleep frequently when you drive – excluding nap time or if you are driving near bedtime? (They shouldn’t)
  • Does your child sometimes fall asleep (crash) much earlier than the usual bedtime? (They shouldn’t)

If you go through this list and find that your child is showing signs that their sleep routine needs adjusting, then it does. Continual sleep deprivation can have severe effects on kids, including interference with learning and compromised health. So getting a handle on this as soon as possible is important. In addition to doing your own research and trying out different methods, it’s often helpful to consult with your pediatrician. And if that doesn’t work, see if you can visit a pediatric sleep clinic – you can learn lots of little tricks that can help you set up a routine (click here to see my post from last month that discusses tips I learned) that can be calibrated to get your kid the amount of sleep that’s right for them.

Restful Sleep image via



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  1. by Cee

    On February 16, 2012 at 8:42 am

    When I was a child, my mother never made us take naps. As a parent, I never made my son take naps. Naps are really for the parent to get some piece of mind. Everyone is different and their bodies will let them know when they need sleep and when they are ready to wake up. what is the big deal. most kids will fall asleep when they are exhausted…we are not robots folks…we are parents. stop treating your children like little things that need to be fixed!!

  2. by Anna

    On February 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    While I think it is true that not all children need naps, my parents philosophy as well as my own is that while children may not need a nap, they do need some down time. Naptime is used as a time to sleep if tired or do something quiet by yourself for a bit. I feel that taught me to take a little time for myself as well as be a more self aware individual.

  3. by Reba

    On February 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    My 16 month old only sleeps AT MOST 9 hours and has since he started to sleep through the night – at first I wished he was like other kids his age so that I could get more done at night, but now I am trying to look at it as an opportunity to get some extra time with him. He naps forever at daycare – good! He’s happy and healthy, that’s the important part :)

  4. by Marybeth

    On February 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    My daughter goes to be bed at 8pm and sleeps till 9am sometimes 10am and then lays back down between 12-1pm and sleeps till 4-5pm. She has done this for months and it is so nice. She is a very heathly child. She is almost 19months old and has done this for 7months now. Hoping she keeps it up.

  5. by kristi

    On February 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Helloooo….what about school aged children???? childhood doesn’t end at preschool!!!!

  6. by Shannon

    On February 17, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    I have a 4 year old who has never slept more than 9-10 hours a day. As an infant the child NEVER slept (much to my dismay!!!) She goes to bed about 9 and is up about 7. Now my 2 year old has given up his nap (ugh!!) and he’s doing the same sleep schedule as she is. I also have a 5 month old who doesn’t like to sleep either. By the end of the day I’m pulling my hair out!!! I do require the older two to have down time for at least an hour during the day. It’s when they are allowed to watch tv.

  7. by This week's healthy schools highlights | EdNews Parent

    On February 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    [...] that, in general, the guidelines are backed up by enough research to make them useful. Read this Parents blog post. AKPC_IDS += "8410,";Popularity: unranked [?] [...]

  8. [...] that, in general, the guidelines are backed up by enough research to make them useful. Read this Parents blog post. AKPC_IDS += [...]