As parents, we all know that babies need lots and lots of sleep. Even when kids move through their toddler and preschool years, we expect them to need naps as well as to enjoy a nice, long evening slumber.
Yet, as kids get older and start juggling homework, extracurricular activities, hobbies and social time, they're squeezing more and more into those same 24 hours. What often ends up suffering is kids' sleep.
The question is, how much sleep do they really need, and what can you do to make sure they’re getting enough?
In 2016, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released their recommended guidelines for children’s sleep based on age.
Kids' sleep needs at a glance
Birth-3 mo 14-17 (including naps)
4 mo-1 yr 12-15 (including naps)
1-2 yrs 11-14 (including naps)
3-5 yrs 10-13 (including naps)
6-13 yrs 9 -12
For most younger children, it’s easy to make sure they’re getting enough sleep, and it’s even easier to tell when they haven’t had enough. Every parent is familiar with the “overtired child” syndrome: erratic emotions, hyperactivity and trouble concentrating. That’s usually when you announce, “someone needs a nap,” and pull the parent card, sending them off for a little afternoon snooze.
Even though we may joke about it, kids not getting enough sleep can mean more than just irritating behavior. The side effects of prolonged sleep deprivation can exacerbate serious health risks, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension — yes, even in children.
When it comes to teens, sleep becomes much more complicated. Teenagers’ minds and bodies are growing and developing at an astronomical rate — similar to how rapidly toddlers grow. So while they may not need quite as much sleep as a toddler, their sleep cycles are just as important. It turns out that teenagers have different and unique circadian rhythms, meaning their natural state of waking and sleeping is not the same as a young child’s.
Teenagers aren’t just rebellious, anti-establishment troublemakers when they are up late at night and have difficulty waking up early. Actually, their circadian rhythm is set to a later time than younger children’s, meaning it’s harder for them to unwind and fall asleep before 11 at night, and their brains stay in “sleep mode” until 8 in the morning. And this isn’t something that can be changed by making them get up earlier and go to bed earlier.
This revelation about teens and sleep patterns led to the American Academy of Pediatrics issuing a recommendation that school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Sadly, we haven’t seen many schools adopt this recommended schedule, resulting in most American teens still being chronically short on sleep, which can increase the risk for depression, suicidal thoughts and self harm. So, before you hammer your teen about sleeping in on the weekend, keep in mind that they have been running on a deficit the entire week.
Sadly, this is harder to prevent than we would like to think — especially in this modern, fast-paced life.
How to make sure kids get enough sleep
All in all, the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine are completely in line with the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite all of those expert recommendations, little, if any, of our children’s worlds are set up to respect and value the essential sleep needs of childhood that are required to live a healthy and happy life.
This means we, as parents, need to take things a bit slower and help our kids, regardless of age, to learn to listen to their bodies and protect their health.
Have a routine
Young kids can benefit immensely from a nightly routine of quiet time with a book or story time. Older kids and teens should have their own version of a routine that extends beyond basic hygiene. Try incorporating meditation for kids, pre-bed stretching or yoga or a spiritual practice, such as prayer.
It seems like a no-brainer, but there is also plenty of science behind the need to turn off screens. Electronic devices, like most modern light sources, emit blue light. Blue light is only naturally occurring during the day and is the way our bodies, historically, have known when to wake and when to sleep. The constant bombardment of blue light from artificial sources disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. So shut down tablets, phones, computers and even televisions earlier to give their bodies and brains time to unwind.
Create a calming atmosphere
Keep the room cool, turn out all the lights (if little ones insist on a night light, be sure to find a blue wave light to avoid disrupting their circadian rhythm). Consider using an essential oil diffuser to enhance the tranquility of the room with essential oils such as lavender, geranium or a calming blend.