How much sleep does your child need? This depends on your child’s age, for the most part. Sleep requirements are also dependent on the individual child. Some children don’t need as much sleep as others do.
What are your child’s sleep requirements? Even the experts don’t know for sure.
Sleep has a big impact on our well-being, so it’s understandable that parents want to know if their kids are getting enough. Recent research suggests that something as simple as a well-timed nap makes a difference in how much preschoolers learn (Kurdziel et al 2013). Naps may also enhance learning in babies.
But while it’s clear that sleep is important, there is no easy formula for calculating your child’s personal sleep needs. In fact, the most surprising thing about sleep requirements is how little we know about them (Hunt 2003).
The official-looking recommendations we see everywhere, like the ones in the box below from National Sleep Foundation, are often based on studies of how much time people spend in bed. The charts don’t tell us how much of this time is actually spent sleeping.
Nor do they tell us about how sleep varies cross-culturally. Typically, recommendations about sleep requirements are based on surveys of Western populations (e.g., Blair et al 2012; Iglowstein et al 2003; Armstrong et al 1994; Roffwarg et al 1966).
Most importantly, the charts can’t tell us what your individualized needs are.
Knowing how much time people spend in bed is somewhat helpful, but it doesn’t tell us if these people are getting the right amount of sleep.
As the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research has noted, we need large-scale, controlled studies that measure both sleep and biological outcomes (Hunt 2003). Unfortunately, such studies are uncommon.
Notable exceptions are recent studies focusing on behavior problems and obesity.
For example, a study of 297 Finnish families with children aged 5-6 years, researchers found that kids who slept less than 9 hours each day had 3-5 times the odds of developing attention problems, behavior problems, and other psychiatric symptoms (Paavonen et al 2009).
Another recent study tracked the development of obesity in young children.
In that study, researchers recorded the body weights and sleep habits of kids under five years of age. Then, five years later, they measured the kids again.
The study revealed a link between sleep loss and obesity. Kids who’d gotten less than 10 hours of nighttime sleep at the beginning of the study were twice as likely to become overweight or obese later on (Bell and Zimmerman 2010).
Moreover, researchers found that the timing of sleep mattered. When it came
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