The Amount of Sleep Your Kids REALLY Need—And How to Help Them Get It

Featured Article, Health and Safety
Kids need the the right amount of quality sleep

It’s common knowledge that adults should aim for about eight hours of sleep each night. But when it comes to kids’ sleep, those figures can get a little fuzzy. How many hours of sleep are children supposed to get each day? And what do you do if your child is a sleep-resister rather than a happy snoozer?

The National Sleep Foundation recently updated its sleep recommendations for kids ages 17 and under, including naps for babies and young children, and they are as follows:

  • Newborn (0–3 months): 14–17 hours of sleep per day
  • Infant (4–11 months): 12–15 hours of sleep per day
  • Toddler (1–2 years): 11–14 hours of sleep per day
  • Preschool (3–5 years): 10–13 hours of sleep per day
  • School Age (6–13 years): 9–11 hours of sleep per day
  • Teen (14–17 years): 8–10 hours of sleep per day

Now, knowing how much sleep children need is one thing, but making sure they actually get their ZZZs is another. Here are five expert tips for sending kids drifting off to Dreamland in no time.

  1. Make sleep a priority.

Sleep should be a “family value,” says Terry Cralle, RN, MS, a clinical sleep educator and co-author of the children’s book Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle. When kids and their parents are sleep-deprived, their mood, cognitive function, performance at school and work, physical wellbeing and safety can all be negatively affected.

“Parents need to teach children about sleep and be sleep role models,” Cralle says. “Everyone respects each other’s need for sleep. If someone’s taking a nap, respect that. Stick to bedtimes and schedules because that’s the healthy habit.”

  1. Create a sleep-friendly environment.

Children’s (and adults’) bedrooms should be sleep sanctuaries, says Cralle. The first step should come as no surprise, but it can be a tough one to enforce: Do not allow electronic devices—cell phones, tablets, TVs, laptops—in kids’ bedrooms at night.

For starters, the light that emanates from devices has been shown to disrupt sleep. “The light of the screen wakes our brains very effectively. It’s true for adults, too. Even if kids use their phones just to check the time, it’s like a little shot of caffeine to their brain,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, a pediatrician and author of Get the Behavior You Want … Without Being the Parent You Hate!.

In addition, kids’ sleep can be interrupted by incoming text messages and social-media notifications. Phones and other devices should be charged overnight in another room. Use regular alarm clocks so kids don’t need to use the alarms on their phones to wake up in the morning.

Next, dim the lights close to bedtime, and use window coverings to make the bedroom dark. “Bright bedroom and bathroom lights are so alerting and stimulating, and suppress melatonin production,” Cralle says. “Dim lights are a clear indication that it’s time for bed. It helps transition the mind and body for sleep.”

Cralle also recommends investing in high-quality mattresses and bedding for children. Keep TV volumes and other household sounds as low as possible to minimize wake-ups. If kids tend to get out of bed to play with the toys in their room, relocate their playthings to another part of the home.

  1. Stick to a routine.

A calming, consistent bedtime routine can make bedtime go more smoothly and allow kids to fall asleep more easily. “Routine helps, as long as it’s a screen-free routine and is predictable and repeatable most nights,” says Gilboa. “Our bodies respond well to habits. If you want your child to be in the habit of going to bed and falling asleep, then you need to give them other habits to connect that habit to.”

But there should also be a “pre-routine” before the baths, books and lullabies. Nix any roughhousing or vigorous physical activity about two hours before bed, says Robert S. Rosenberg, DO, FCCP, a board-certified sleep-medicine physician and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day. “We want the core body temperature to drop, and we do not want children over-stimulated close to bedtime,” he says.”

He also recommends turning off TVs, video games, tablets and other devices 90 minutes before heading to bed.

  1. Make going to bed a positive experience.

Cralle says that bedtime can seem like a “giant time-out” to some kids. They might not like the idea of having to stop playing with their toys or being away from the rest of their family for the night.

“We have to be very careful about how we approach bedtime,” says Cralle. “In some families, if you misbehave, kids are sent to their rooms or sent to bed early. You really have to treat sleep and bedtime positively. Never use it as a reward or punishment. Don’t say, ‘You’ve been good today, so you get to stay up late.’ We don’t want that mixed message.”

Give kids some choices so bedtime doesn’t become a battleground, Cralle advises. Kids can pick the books for storytime, the sippy cup they want to fill with water and the pajamas they want to wear. When kids feel some sense of control and ownership of the process, they’re less likely to exert control by acting out or refusing to go to sleep.

Routines and consistent bedtimes help kids understand parents’ expectations when it comes to sleep. So can education about the importance of sleep, especially with older kids and teens. Explain how sleep—and the lack of it—impacts the mind and body and that getting enough of it can help them perform better on a test or in the swim meet.

“Talk to your kids about why they [should be] motivated to get a good night’s sleep,” says Gilboa. “This isn’t about rules; this is about learning their bodies and being resilient and healthy—not because we tell them to, but because it will get them closer to their goals.”

  1. Watch what they eat and drink.

Giving kids a bedtime snack is usually unnecessary, Gilboa says. In fact, she says, it “can set them up for obesity later in life.” Unless they’re famished after, say, an intense evening sports practice and their hunger could affect their sleep, kids don’t need a snack.

Additionally, certain foods can disrupt sleep. Spicy foods eaten within three hours of bedtime can cause acid reflux and increase body temperature, says Rosenberg. Certainly caffeine should be avoided prior to sleep, but so should sugary foods. “They stimulate the production of excessive amounts of insulin, which in turn causes the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, which is incompatible with sleep,” Rosenberg says.

If kids want to take a drink to bed, it should be only water. “They shouldn’t have a cup, a bottle or a sippy cup of juice, formula, milk or anything else,” Gilboa says. “It’s bad for their teeth, and it’s bad for their health.”

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