How much sleep is enough for your child?

In case you only have 10 seconds to read, I'll cut right to the answer on this one: children between 6 months and 6 years need 11-12 hours of sleep a night, straight. Every night. 

Young children need 11-12 hours of straight sleep each night for optimal health and development.

Young children need 11-12 hours of straight sleep each night for optimal health and development.

Now, the long answer:

If your child is still of napping age (younger than 3), this could be less - 10-11 hours at night - as long as they're taking a good, long nap(s) of 2-4 hours during the day. The American Pediatric Association says 11-12 hours of total sleep in a 24-hour period is the minimum.

But in my experience, babies and young children who have good, healthy sleep habits and learn their own strategy for falling asleep (i.e. they don't need to be rocked or fed, or have a soother or a parent lying beside them), will sleep much more than this, simply because they have the ability to sleep as much as their bodies need.

So maybe you’re thinking: “That’s for other people’s kids,” or “My child has never slept well,” or maybe, “He hates being in his crib.”

I’ve heard it all (and used to think all those things too!), and I’ve seen these babies and toddlers completely turn around.  If your child is healthy, well and neurologically normal, then I can say with 99.9 per cent certainty that your child has it in her to sleep through the night. 

But it’s not enough to just add up a child’s bits and pieces of sleep in between bouts of calling out, downing bottles of milk or coming into your room twice a night and call it 11 hours. It’s the straight part in “11-12 hours straight” that matters.

What we all need to feel refreshed, productive and emotionally stable (which is a relative thing for a baby or toddler) is consolidated sleep.

In the beginning, this is impossible; newborn babies need to feed every three to four hours. We can usually manage this in the short term.  But then life goes on, and we have to function.  And we all had a better idea of what kind of parent we wanted to be.

Now it's also possible that you think you're functioning just fine on 7 hours of sleep with a little one waking you up once or twice (or five times?!). That's no mistake either: research on adults has shown that one of the hallmarks of sleep deprivation is that the sleep-deprived person underestimates their impairments and overestimates their abilities. In other words, they do poorly on memory and reaction-time tests, but think they're doing just fine.

And if our children never learn to sleep through the night and have the deep, restorative sleep their brains and bodies need, how must they feel?

Research has shown that children who don't sleep enough have:

  • higher risk of obesity
  • lower IQ than children who sleep well
  • decreased memory or skill retention
  • tendency to exhibit hyperactivity (boys in particular)
  • lower scores on several areas of school testing including math and literacy.

Some kids weather the blips in regular sleep better than others; there’s a lot that depends on your child’s overall temperament. But there’s just no question that adequate sleep is critical to every child's health and well-being.

Even with a long, consolidated stretch of sleep, my own preschooler is noticeably calmer and more co-operative (and generally nicer to be around) on 12 hours of sleep than on 10-and-a-half.  And on broken or jet-lagged sleep? Forget about it. Let’s face it: parenting is hard enough.

As a sleep coach, my absolute favourite part of the job is hearing parents who have finished a two-to-three-week sleep program talk about the difference a full night’s sleep makes for their child.

Here's one example:

Braeden, a two-and-a-half year old, had been taking an hour or more to fall asleep, waking several times a night (sometimes for a long stretch) and eventually ending up in his parents’ bed.  Every night.  His parents were exhausted and exasperated.
Within a week or two on the plan I created for them that addressed sleep habits, timing, behaviour, and the boundaries around what happens at night versus what happens during the day, Braeden was putting together 12 straight hours every night and napping every afternoon. It was a life changer for his parents.
But one of the most telling pieces of this story was the change they saw in their son: he had been seeing a speech therapist for delayed speech.  Within a few weeks of finally getting adequate sleep, his speech was exploding.  He was counting, singing the alphabet and getting much less frustrated as he could finally start to express his needs. The speech therapist told the parents she had no further need to see their son.

Children need consolidated sleep, just like we do. If they don't get it, it will show up in subtle ways or possibly a big way, like for Braeden. The biggest effects may not even show up until years later, when your child has chronic sleep issues.

The good news is, your child can learn. In fact, they're learning machines; we just have to give them the chance. And when everyone is getting the sleep they need, many other behavioural challenges and parenting problems just melt away.

So, if your child is already falling asleep independently, but continues to wake in the night, how you respond to this waking will make all the difference. If you know they've been well fed and aren't in any discomfort, your first step is to wait. Ten minutes is the magic number for giving your baby or toddler the chance to put themselves back to sleep without your intervention; that will go a long way to seeing those sporadic wakings stop altogether. 

If your little one is still struggling after the 10 minutes, then go in and soothe them in some way that doesn't develop an association - one they will learn to associate with getting back to sleep (like an 18-month old learning to need a bottle in the middle of the night). Keep it quick and keep it simple. Having a 20-minute playtime with their favourite person might be enough to entice them to keep the midnight-waking habit going.

If your child is old enough to get out of bed and pop into your room for a nightly visit (or two or three), again, your response will dictate whether this goes on for years (yes, years) or stops now.  I always recommend as a first-line defence to gently, quietly lead them back to bed, tuck them in and leave again. You may have to do this a lot on night one, but keep your poker face and persevere for a few nights; the fun should be over for your little one soon. 

There is plenty of time for fun during daylight hours, and you will have a lot more energy for it.