Sleep 101 for Babies to Teens: Helping Your Child Get a Good Night’s Rest

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Mother kissing sleeping child on cheek How much is enough sleep for a child? The answer depends on the child’s age. Most babies need 14 to 17 hours of sleep each day, while teenagers should get 8 to 10 hours. At different points in your child’s life, those hours of rest may be disrupted by illnesses, school transitions, vacations and even cognitive gains!

Knowing what sleep changes to expect at different stages of childhood and understanding what may trigger these changes can help everyone sleep easier at night.

Newborn to age 2

Many people talk about a “sleep regression” in the first year of a baby’s life. This is when a baby was previously sleeping well, and then starts to have trouble. In the sleep world, we think of this as a progression — and a sign of healthy development! Here are some common sleep disruptors among babies:

  • Sleep associations. Early on as the brain develops, your baby might begin to associate certain things with falling asleep, such as nursing or bottle-feeding, sucking on a pacifier at bedtime or being held or rocked. Babies can wake up two to six times per night and may need this sleep aid to fall back to sleep. When your baby no longer needs to feed overnight, making changes at bedtime can help your baby learn to self-soothe to fall asleep at bedtime and eventually after normal night awakenings.
  • Developmental gains. Babies want to practice what they’ve just learned, even if it’s in the middle of the night. You might find your baby pulling up from sitting to standing after lights out, crawling around their crib or babbling as they practice newly acquired language skills. Keep your responses brief and boring if you need to go into the room to get your little one back to sleep.
  • Medical concerns. Eczema, ear infections and reflux, among other concerns, can disrupt young children’s sleep. Be sure to check with your baby’s doctor if you think medical problems could be causing the changes in your baby’s sleep. 

Children 3 to 5 years old

By age 5, most children stop napping, which can impact their nighttime sleep. This change is usually gradual, meaning some days your child will still nap, and other days they will not. You can put your child to bed slightly earlier if they have not napped, and later if they have napped that day. Be sure to avoid having your child nap after 4 or 5 p.m. as this can make it harder for them to fall asleep at bedtime. Other changes that can affect sleep at this age include:

  • Toilet training. Try making a potty trip part of your bedtime routine, and work on independence with overnight potty trips.
  • Moving from a crib to a bed. Our research shows that it may be helpful to delay this transition until age 3 or later, unless your child is climbing out of their crib. During this transition, your child may get out of bed or call out more often after lights out. Keep your responses brief, boring and consistent after lights out. Consider using a sticker chart or other reward to help your child learn to stay in their new bed at bedtime and overnight.
  • Nighttime fears. Many young children develop fears of the dark, monsters, or other imaginary characters during this period. This can lead to trouble falling asleep and getting back to sleep when they wake during the night. Using a nightlight, a stuffed animal, and “changing the channel” on bad dreams can help.

School-age children, 6 to 11 years old

School transitions, electronic devices and scary movies are common sleep disruptors for children this age.

  • School. Transitioning from preschool to kindergarten or first grade can cause sleep problems. Your child may not get as much sleep as they are used to. For older children,  changing schools or schedules can also impact nighttime sleep. Focus on maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and helping your child get the amount of sleep recommended for their age.
  • Nighttime fears. These can emerge in school-aged kids as well as younger ones, and are often related to the dark or to scary content on movies and videos. At this age, children may also be more aware of potential dangers at nighttime, such as burglaries, fires or other scary events. Work with your child to develop “brave thoughts” to help with fears, relaxation strategies at bedtime, and manage nightmares that may occur.
  • Electronics. As children get older, they may have more access to electronics devices, which can keep them up at bedtime and overnight after an awakening. Developing a family media plan can help you and your family set limits around device usage and promote better sleep.

Adolescents, ages 12 to 18 years

A “perfect storm” of biological and social factors make sleep a challenge for many teens. These include developmental changes, like puberty. Teenagers tend to want to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning. This is due in part to your teenager’s social activities, school and work, but biology also plays a role. You can help your teenager get a good night’s sleep. Try these sleep health tips:

  • Help your teenager create a more consistent sleep schedule during the week.
  • Make sure your teen avoids late-afternoon naps and caffeine during the day.
  • Set limits on device usage so that your teenager does not use electronics at bedtime or overnight.
  • Help your teenager adjust to a new sleep schedule when transitioning from summertime or vacation to school. You can work on this by gradually moving their sleep time earlier a week or two before school resumes.

It’s normal for children of all ages to have nights when it’s hard to fall — or stay — asleep. By anticipating the causes and using strategies to get a good night’s rest, you can help your child establish lifelong healthy sleeping habits. Be sure to check with your child’s doctor if you need help managing persistent sleep problems.

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