How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?

A bored little boy eats while he watches TV.
Know how much sleep your kids need to be alert and cooperative all day. Photo © Brian Toro, 2007

Have you ever wondered how much sleep your kids really need, and whether you're sending them off to bed early enough (or, perhaps, too early)? This reader question highlights a common issue:

How much sleep do kids really need? I'm not sure that my four-year-old son is getting enough rest. He seems to be tired quite often, and he falls apart each night at the dinner table. Sometimes he refuses to eat what I'm serving, and then he crumbles into a fiery temper tantrum. I try to put him to bed by 8:30 p.m., but he's often still awake at 9:00 or 9:30. What should I do? He's usually up by 6:00 a.m. 

First of all, the situation you describe is quite common. The hours between dinner and bedtime include some of the most stressful moments of the day. It's hard to accomplish all you need to do and get your kids to go to sleep in their own beds, on time. However, your son's behavior may suggest that he needs more sleep than he's currently getting.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child's Sleep provides some helpful guidelines regarding just how much sleep children need at different stages in their development. Keep in mind that these numbers reflect total sleep hours in a 24-hour period. So if your son still naps, you'll need to take that into account when you add up his typical sleep hours.

  • Between Birth-Six Months, children need 16-20 hours
  • Between Six-Twelve Months, children need 14-15 hours
  • Between Ages 1-3, children need 10-13 hours
  • Between Ages 3-10, children need 10-12 hours
  • Between Ages 11-12, children need about 10 hours
  • Teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep per night

If those numbers are surprising, you're not alone. Single moms and dads, especially, are often forced to get by on 5, 6, or even fewer hours of sleep a night. (Which is actually a single-parent-survival tactic that could be affecting your health.) As a result, it might be tempting to think that your kids can also get by with less sleep than they need, or that they should be able to cope fairly well with a few skipped hours here and there.

However, kids who are regularly sleep deprived will exhibit some pretty difficult behaviors. They display frequent irritability, overreact emotionally, have difficulty concentrating, forget easily, and wake often during the night.

To resolve the issue, consider moving your child's bedtime up. This may sound impossible at first, but by moving his entire bedtime routine up half an hour, you'll help him associate bedtime with an earlier time. In fact, you may be surprised to find that he goes to sleep more easily and sleeps through the night more regularly when he is well-rested.

In addition, make an appointment to speak with your child's pediatrician about your concerns. He or she may ask you to keep a sleep log or have additional suggestions to improving your child's sleep habits.

References:
Cohen, George J., M.D., F.A.A.P. (Ed.). (1999). American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Your Child’s Sleep. New York: Villard.