Michael Terman, PhD

Getting an adequate amount of healthy sleep is as critical to children’s development as having a sound, nutritious diet, and in today’s 24/7 fast-food world, it is just as endangered. Too many adults think that getting by with less sleep is an accomplishment to be proud of.

Children notice this and adopt the attitude for themselves. Even if they didn’t, their lives are filled with noise, artificial light, and the constant flickering lure of electronic media. They do not find it easy to screen out the distractions and retreat into slumber. Yet it is urgent that they do so.

Sleep does much more than simply give the body time to recover from a day’s activities. The benefits range across practically every area of development, from physical and cognitive to emotional and social.

Children who get enough sleep are happier and easier for them to get along with. They focus their attention better, which helps them cope with school. They are less at risk for growth problems and obesity. And recent research suggests that adequate sleep strengthens the immune system, helping to ward off disease.

Guidelines for the Right Amount of Sleep

What do we mean by “adequate sleep”? Of course it varies from one child to another, and of course it changes as the child grows older. It may even change with the time of year and the school calendar. However, here are some rough guidelines:

  • Newborns — 16–18 hours per day
  • 1 month–1 year old — 14–15 hours per day
  • 1–3 years old — 12–14 hours per day
  • 3–6 years old — 11–13 hours per day
  • 6–12 years old — 10–11 hours per day

We should stress that this list does not tell you how many hours children actually sleep. Instead, it is a set of recommendations for how many hours they should sleep. And as the car commercials say about gasoline mileage, your results may differ.

How to Promote Healthier Sleep: Six Tips

Parents can do a great deal to promote healthier sleep in their children. Many of the steps they can take are common sense. We mention them anyway, because common sense so often gets forgotten or overlooked.

  • A child’s bedroom should be a cool, quiet place for relaxation and sleep, not for emailing and watching TV. And certainly not a place the child gets sent as punishment—that is a recipe for creating sleep difficulties.
  • The inner clock is very sensitive to light input, especially light in the blue part of the spectrum. Limit evening exposure to TV and computer monitors. If the child is unhappy sleeping in a totally darkened room, a dim amber nightlight can offer comfort without upsetting the sleep cycle. (See the amber night lights at cet.org.)
  • Set consistent bedtimes and wake times, even on weekends. A morning of “sleeping in” interferes with the normal daily buildup of sleep pressure and makes it harder to get to sleep at the proper time that evening.
  • During the day, cut down on chocolate, cola drinks, and other sources of caffeine. Caffeine not only makes it harder to fall asleep, it leads to less sleep and lighter, less satisfying sleep. And it can go on affecting kids for eight hours or more.
  • Make evenings relaxed. That means reining in active play, razzle-dazzle video games, and overstimulating TV shows as bedtime approaches.
  • Create a calm, pleasant bedtime routine, such as a bath and a story before lights out. Bedtime rituals are not just for preschool kids, older kids benefit from a predictable quiet time as well.