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.