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Children & Sleep: Hours, Factors and Guide

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Our sleep needs change from year to year, depending on a variety of factors, but one of the most important is growth and development. When we are younger and growing and developing at a much more rapid rate, we need more sleep. 

There are biological reasons kids need more sleep than adults, and not getting enough sleep can have a negative impact on kids’ physical and mental development. But how much sleep do kids need? And what time should they go to bed?

Why Is Sleep Important for Kids?

In order to understand why sleep is so important for kids, we need to understand why sleep is so important, period. During sleep1, our bodies are doing everything from repairing muscle tissue, strengthening our immune system, digesting and regulating our metabolism, regulating important hormones, resting our muscles, lowering our heart rate, and slowing our breathing. The brain is also undergoing an important process of storing long-term memories and making space for new information and learning.1 

In a child’s earliest years of life, their brains, in particular, are developing at a rapid rate2. Think about it this way: everything they are learning is new. This is why babies need the most sleep – to support their development. If infants don’t get enough sleep3, they are more likely to struggle with cognitive and physical development. 

As babies move from infancy to toddlerhood, and later into childhood and adolescence, their brains are not the only things quickly growing; so are their bodies. During this time, the pituitary gland releases what is known as growth hormone4 (HGH). This hormone helps prompt physical changes that include height, bones, and muscles.4 HGH levels increase with age and peak during the puberty stage, and then later decline from middle age onward.4

Research has shown5 that slow-wave (or deep) sleep, in particular, plays an important role in the secretion of the growth hormone in children. As a result, inadequate sleep could diminish the amount of growth hormone present in children and adolescents, affecting their physical growth6.

As you’ll see, children progressively need less and less sleep over the years, but still, kids anywhere from babies to teens need more sleep than adults do because they are still developing. 


How Many Hours of Sleep Do Kids Need?

Every child will be slightly different, but in general, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine7 recommends the following for different age groups: 

Infants (4 – 12 months)12 – 16 hours
Toddlers (1 to 2 years)11 – 14 hours
Children (3 to 5 years)10 – 13 hours 
Children (6 to 12 years)9 – 12 hours
Teenagers (13 to 18 years)8 – 10 hours

It’s important to remember that this is the total amount of sleep recommended during a 24-hour period8. So, for children under about five years old, this will include at least one to three naps.8 In fact, newborns and infants will need to sleep the most total hours, but their sleep will also be the most broken up, often into periods of just three or four hours at a time.8

You should also note that children who are recovering from illness9 or premature infants10 will require more sleep. Additionally, certain sleep disorders11 might make it more difficult for your child to get the recommended amount of sleep. If you think this might be the case, it’s a good idea to bring it up with your pediatrician.


When Should a Child Go to Bed According to Age?

The time that your child should go to bed depends on what time your child wakes up. Here you can see a table of what time your child should get to sleep, depending on their age and what time they wake up in the morning. 

      Wake-Up Time:  5:00 a.m.    6:00 a.m.     7:00 a.m.
  0-1    5:00 p.m.    6:00 p.m.                      7:00 p.m.
1-2     5:00 p.m.  6:00 p.m.  7:00 p.m.
  2-3   6:00 p.m.  7:00 p.m.   8:00 p.m.
  3-5  7:00 p.m.  8:00 p.m.   9:00 p.m.
  6-12   8:00 p.m.  9:00 p.m.  10:00 p.m.
  13-18   9:00 p.m.  10:00 p.m.  11:00 p.m.

Your child’s exact bedtime might be different from this table, depending on when they naturally get up or need to get up for something like school. To determine the best bedtime for kids, you have to first look at how much sleep they need for their age. For example, if your child is seven, they should get 9-12 hours of sleep each day. 

Next, you’ll determine what time they wake up each morning. Let’s say your seven-year-old wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready for school. You’ll then work your way backward, selecting a bedtime that is at least nine hours (and at most 12 hours) before their wake-up time. In the case of this hypothetical seven-year-old, that would mean a bedtime of 9:00 p.m. at the latest.

If you notice that your child is still sleepy, try moving bedtime a bit earlier, or if possible, move their wake-up time a bit later.


How Do I Know If My Child Isn’t Getting Enough Sleep?

Young children won’t have the language skills to communicate whether or not they’re getting enough sleep, and even older children may not have the self-awareness to know if they’re getting enough sleep, so you may have to look out for some subtle cues. According to Cleveland Clinic12, these are some outward signs that your child isn’t getting enough sleep, by age group:  

Babies: When babies don’t get enough sleep, they may exhibit signs like: 

  • Fussing, whining, crying, or yawning
  • Looking zoned out
  • Pulling their ears
  • Rubbing their eyes

Toddlers: When toddlers aren’t sleeping enough, they may: 

  • Act more clingy
  • Be more hyperactive during naptime or bedtime
  • Act irritable 
  • Be slower to interact with parents or other kids

Children: When school-aged children aren’t sleeping enough, they may show the following signs:  

  • Difficult to wake up in the morning 
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble focusing in class
  • Falling asleep in class
  • Sleep for long periods of time and take lots of naps during the weekends

Teenagers: When teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep, they’re more likely to communicate this, but if they don’t, here are some outward signs: 

  • Excessive irritability or mood swings
  • Sleeping in school 
  • Reports of unsafe driving
  • Skipping commitments outside of school in order to sleep

Researchers have also found that teens who sleep for less than six hours13 per night are more likely to use drugs and get into fights.


Sleep Tips for Children

No matter your child’s age, there are a few things that should help them get better sleep. In fact, if you also have trouble sleeping, it’s always a good idea to adhere to the following expert recommendations14

  1. Set a sleep schedule: Make sure that your child is going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. We know this might be difficult on the weekends, but experts advise no more than one hour’s difference (max) between school nights and weekend nights.14 To determine your child’s bedtime, remember to count backward the recommended hours of sleep they need from the time they wake up.
  2. Establish a bedtime routine: Establishing a bedtime routine can help your child feel more relaxed and ready for bed. Good bedtime routines for kids might include brushing their teeth, taking a bath, and reading a book. In short, relaxing activities to help your child wind down, each night, before bed.
  3. Cut off electronic devices before bed: Kids’ access to electronic screen devices such as iPads and smartphones should be cut off at least an hour before their scheduled bedtime. The reason for this is that these devices suppress the production of the melatonin hormone15, an important hormone for facilitating sleep. As a result, they will feel more awake instead of sleepy.
  4. Avoid caffeine and sugary beverages: Experts recommend avoiding caffeine for up to eight hours before bed.14 Sugar also has an immediate energy-boosting effect16 and should be avoided before bedtime.
  5. Have a light snack: Going to bed hungry is just as disruptive for sleep as going to bed too full, so let your child have a healthy, light snack before bedtime (and before teeth brushing). 

Learn more: The Best Foods for Sleep

  1. Daytime exercise: Physical activity is not only good for kids’ physical and mental health, but it can also improve their sleep. Your child or teen should be getting daily exercise, preferably outdoors, which can help regulate their circadian rhythm.  Just make sure your child isn’t engaging in rigorous physical activity or getting overstimulated right before bedtime. 

What Factors Affect Kids’ Sleep?

Multiple factors can affect your child’s ability to get good sleep, from genetics to the way that their bedroom is set up. While you can’t do much about their genes, you can certainly help change their sleep environment and behaviors. The following are some of the underlying factors that can impact your kid’s sleep:

  1. Genetics: Some sleep issues can be passed down genetically. A 2018 study17 found that insomnia was tied to several variants on chromosome 7. Interestingly, there are also genetic mutations18 that give people the ability to sleep for shorter periods of time and still feel adequately rested. These people are called “short sleepers,” and actually need less sleep – only about six hours per night.
  2. Sleep habits: Sleep habits have a huge impact on how well and how long we sleep. For example, if your child does not keep a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, they’re more likely to have trouble getting enough sleep.14 Good sleep habits also involve following a consistent bedtime ritual.
  3. Medical issues: Medical issues can also come between your child and a good night’s sleep. Kids who have experienced an injury or who are sick may have more difficulty falling or staying asleep. Furthermore, some children may develop sleeping disorders that can affect their quality of rest.11
  4. Parents and guardians: Parents and guardians also have a major influence on kids’ sleep because they are the ones enforcing the rules. Most children and teens won’t have the self-discipline to follow a sleep schedule on their own, so it is up to the guardians to make sure they go to sleep and wake up on time. Parents can also ensure that they’re not using screens before bed and that their bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool through the night.
  5. Screen devices: Melatonin is a hormone that helps foster sleepiness and is released naturally when nighttime rolls around, but devices like cell phones, computers, and iPads emit a blue light that suppresses melatonin production and can instead, in fact, produce adrenaline.15 If your child or teen is using their screen devices into the night, there’s a good chance it is negatively impacting their sleep.
  6. Environment: While young children may fall asleep anywhere, adolescents may start needing a more comfortable environment for sleeping.  Ideally, their bedroom environment should be completely dark, cool, and quiet. Also, a white noise machine may help cancel out any disruptive background noise. 

Does Mattress Quality Affect Kids’ Sleep?

Yes, mattress quality can affect kids’ sleep. If a mattress is uncomfortable or doesn’t accommodate their growing frame, this could make it harder for your child to sleep well. Our sleep and mattress experts have compiled reviews of the best mattresses for kids and the best beds for teens.

Here are a few questions to ask when it comes to your child’s mattress: 

  • What type of sleeper is my child? Back sleepers and stomach sleepers need a firmer mattress, whereas side sleepers need something softer. Combination sleepers need a bed that is easy to move around on and has a medium feel that accommodates multiple sleep positions.
  • What type of bed frame do they have? This will determine what kind of mattress they can get and what will perform best with their current frame.
  • What is their body type? Larger body types will need more support, which is typically a firmer mattress, whereas lightweight sleepers can feel more supported on softer mattresses. 

Can Music Help Kids Sleep Better?

Yes, certain music can help kids sleep better. Calming melodies and lullabies are a popular method to help babies and young children fall asleep. Even as we get older, listening to calming, slow music can help us relax19 by influencing the brain to produce alpha waves. 

Music has also been shown to reduce pain20 and lower the heart rate in pediatric hospital patients. Just make sure the music is slow, calming, and lacks lyrics that may be distracting.


Sleep Problems in Children

Sleep Anxiety

Sleep anxiety21 is a term used to describe anxiety or fear around going to sleep. It can affect adults, teens, and children, but for younger people, it may be harder to pinpoint since they may not have the language skills to communicate their feelings. Here are some signs you can look for: 

  1. Emotional symptoms: Kids with sleep anxiety may show emotional symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed, irritable, nervous, restless, or afraid before going to bed.21
  2. Physical symptoms: Physical signs associated with sleep anxiety include digestive issues, increased heart rate, faster breathing, sweating, muscle tension, and trembling.21
  3. Behavioral symptoms: Kids with sleep anxiety may do just about anything to avoid going to sleep22. For example, they may complain about being too hungry, thirsty, not tired, too hot, or too cold, and may get up multiple times throughout the night.22
  4. Doctor evaluation: If you notice physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of sleep anxiety, you should consult with your child’s doctor. The physician will likely conduct an evaluation in which they do a physical exam and ask questions about your child’s sleeping habits.
  5. Sleep study: Sometimes, your child’s physician may recommend a sleep study to determine if they have a sleep disorder. During a sleep study23, the specialist will analyze your child’s brain activity, breathing, and movements during sleep to determine whether or not there is an underlying sleep disorder. 

The good news is that parents can help children experiencing sleep anxiety. One of the easiest solutions is to stick to a good sleep schedule and establish a calming nightly routine. If the problem persists, parents may consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)24, which has been shown to be as effective as taking sleeping pills and addresses the root of the problem rather than the symptoms. 

Nightmares or Night Terrors

If your child is having regular nightmares25, it may disrupt their sleep. This could become cyclical, as sleep deprivation can actually lead to more nightmares, and these sorts of scary dreams are more common if your child is experiencing anxiety, fear, stress, or trauma.25 

Night terrors, or “sleep terrors,” are also scary nighttime events, but they are different from nightmares in a few ways. While nightmares occur during REM sleep, night terrors26 occur during deep sleep. 

Night terrors occur in normally developing children, mostly between the ages of four and seven. Signs your child is having a night terror may include screaming, sweating, thrashing around, or staring blankly – though they likely won’t remember the scary episode in the morning.26 

Sleepwalking or Talking in Their Sleep

Just like nightmares and night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep talking are forms of “parasomnias.” A parasomnia is a type of sleep disorder27 characterized by abnormal behavior during sleep. 

Sleepwalking is more common in children than in adults. Almost one third of children28 will sleepwalk at some point during their childhood and usually, they’ll outgrow it by adolescence29

This usually isn’t a sign of significant emotional or psychological problems, but it may result from some underlying stress or anxiety. Sleepwalking is also more common when your child has a fever or is sleep-deprived. 28

Talking during sleep is another form of pediatric parasomnia, and it can occur during either REM or non-REM sleep30. An estimated two out of three people talk in their sleep at some point during their lives, but it is especially common in children.30 Similar to sleepwalking, most children will outgrow sleeptalking by their teenage years.29

Snoring or Sleep Apnea

Kids may occasionally snore because of a cold or stuffy nose, but if your child snores regularly or loudly, it could be a sign of pediatric sleep apnea, a deviated septum, or some other issue that needs medical attention. 

Sleep apnea can be dangerous if left untreated, so be sure to speak to your pediatrician if you notice any of these symptoms31

  • Loud snoring
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Loud snorts of gasping for air during sleep
  • Restless sleep
  • Bedwetting
  • Daytime sleepiness or behavioral problems

Oftentimes, sleep apnea in children is caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids, so your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy. However, pediatric sleep apnea may also be caused by obesity or perhaps an issue in the nervous system (central sleep apnea).31 

Either way, sleep apnea is a condition that requires medical attention to avoid complications.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition where a person feels an uncontrollable desire to move their legs during sleep. This sleep disorder affects about two percent32 of school-aged children, and it can run in families, so if you have RLS, your child might too. It’s also more common in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)32 

Though RLS doesn’t directly lead to health complications, it can negatively impact your child’s sleep, and long-term sleep deprivation can lead to a myriad of issues. If you think your child might have restless legs syndrome, speak to their pediatrician for treatment options, which could include diet or lifestyle changes, iron supplements, hot baths and stretching, or certain medications.32


Frequently Asked Questions

What happens to kids when they don’t get enough sleep?

When children consistently don’t get enough sleep, they’ll likely experience mental health and behavioral issues over time. In one recent study33 comparing kids who got the recommended amount of sleep for their age group versus kids who got less, the kids who didn’t get enough sleep experienced more stress, impulsivity, depression, anxiety, aggression, as well as cognitive issues like decision making, conflict solving, memory, and learning.33 

Additionally, inadequate sleep could stunt your child’s growth.6

What are the two most common sleeping problems for children?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and insomnia seem to be the most common34 sleeping issues for children. OSA may affect about four percent of children, and insomnia may affect 25 percent of children35 and up to 35 percent of adolescents.34 Parasomnias, including sleepwalking, sleep talking, nightmares, and night terrors, are also common in children. In fact, they are much more common in children than they are in adults.27  

Can lack of sleep stunt a child’s growth?

Yes, over time, a lack of sleep can stunt a child’s growth.6 

The reason for this is that during deep sleep, the pituitary gland releases the “growth hormone,” or HGH. This hormone is what helps your child develop their muscles, bones, and height, and not getting enough deep sleep means they may not get enough of this vital hormone.4


Conclusion

Getting your child to sleep may be difficult, but each age group from babies to teens needs a certain amount of sleep to ensure their physical and mental development. Making sure they have a regular nighttime routine and sleep schedule as well as eliminating screens, sugar, and caffeine can be hugely helpful in getting your child the rest they need to thrive. If this isn’t cutting it, you may want to speak to your pediatrician about possible underlying sleep disorders or starting treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Natalie Grigson

Natalie Grigson

Writer

About Author

Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.

Combination Sleeper

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