How much sleep do children need?
This is one of the most common questions in parenthood, alongside ‘what age do babies sleep through the night?’ and ‘why is my baby’s poop green?’ I’ll hold my hands up and say that I Googled these very questions just days after my daughter was born.
I naively thought there’d be a beautifully structured timetable, framed with moon and star icons, that I could follow to the minute. Turns out that no such thing existed, and it wasn’t until I became a Child Sleep Consultant that I realised why this was.
Firstly, the biggest thing to note is, the quantity of sleep that little ones need changes regularly, super helpful right? As if keeping another being alive isn’t a challenge enough for us. Sleep requirements change, from 0-3 months, 3-6 months, 6-8 months and so on, right up until 4 years old, where a child who’s super switched-on and into everything may still need a nap if they’re suffering effects of overtiredness. Sufficient daytime sleep is essential for healthy night time sleep.
Secondly, quality of sleep plays a huge part in this. Your little one may tick the quantity box, but if you’re always out and about, transferring them in and out of the car, in noisy environments, or even if they’re just napping on the sofa while you’re watching a film, they’re unlikely to get the quality of sleep they need in that cycle. This can result in shallow or interrupted sleep, meaning they don’t actually fall into the deep, restorative sleep we need. Lacking in quality can have the same results as lacking in quantity, which can contribute to rising levels of overtiredness.
Thirdly, the whole situation of sleep is hugely reactive. What I mean by this is, the timings of them being put down to sleep (for naps and at night) should shift depending on the quality and length of their last sleep. Each child has a wakeful window (how long they can be awake for between sleeps without entering the dangerous territory of overtiredness), this also changes regularly with a child’s age (yay for even more change for our tired minds to keep track of!). It’s such a balancing act, to not only get your little one the sleep they need, while also getting them down to sleep within their wakeful window, but also taking into account whether they had a broken/short sleep previously, meaning their nap/bedtime would benefit from shifting earlier, because they hadn’t fully recharged on their previous sleep. Following? Probably only just! It almost requires a mathematical mindset to calculate what they need and when. Then, just when you feel you’ve sussed it and have found your flow, they start to show signs of dropping a nap and transitioning to the next stage, so you have to reassess allllll of the above.
So you see, there simply can’t be a timetabled schedule, because it’s dependent on so many variables that change almost hourly.
Many parents do try to act in a responsive way, by putting their child down for naps when they notice tiredness cues such as yawning, eye-rubbing or irritability. The issue with this is that you may have left it too late, as some children don’t show these signs until they’re already in a state of overtiredness, especially those who can go from 0-100 in a matter of seconds. Being overtired has a lot to answer for. It can often lead to difficulty settling, crashing out to sleep within minutes only to wake after 30/45 minutes, or outright nap rejections. It’s at this point that you may think (understandably) ‘that was a short nap’ or ‘they obviously aren’t tired’, then get them up to continue their day. The problem here is, they’ve fallen short on that sleep they desperately needed, which will only fuel the overtiredness on a future sleep, and so it snowballs into the situation which may have led you here.
Some parents think that, if their child is waking up early or rejecting naps, they simply might not need as much sleep as other children. However, the stats show that only 5% of children fall outside of the ‘sleep needs’ averages. The chances are that your child does fit, but they’re having other challenges that are harming their rhythm and putting their health and wellbeing at risk through lack of sleep.
As backwards as it seems, it’s probable that the overtiredness is causing those very wakeups that then results in even more overtiredness, just like the wakeups during the night and early morning risings that many parents see from overtired little ones. Counterintuitive as it seems, allowing your child to have more sleep can really enhance their sleep pattern, curing many sleep challenges.
Developmental milestones can be another factor in how much sleep our little one’s need, as these can upset sleep (many call this upset a sleep regression, despite the fact the child is actually PROgressing). If they’re approaching/at the ages of rolling over, crawling, walking, weaning, talking etc, and are spending their days practicing these skills (as well as rehearsing them mentally in their sleep, which is actually a thing we do!), they’re likely to need a little boost in their sleep intake until they ‘level-up’, and for a short time after too while their brain and body recover.
Teething, illness, immunisations, these are all things which can upset even the steadiest sleep rhythm. These examples may be other times we need to step-up our reactive parenting skills and offer earlier naps, top-up naps, earlier nights to our children who are exhausted by pain, irritability and change at a time they need rest, comfort and routine until they fall back into their rhythm.
One step ahead
In summary, I can’t recommend enough being one step ahead of your child’s sleep needs and not relying on them to tell you, as they likely need you to take the lead and show them. Knowing the average amount of daytime and night time sleep they need, putting them down within their wakeful window (if they’re sleeping well) and being reactive with bringing their sleep time sooner if their sleep has been suffering will really benefit your little one’s sleep rhythm and be an incredible start to getting them back on-track.