Just as everyone has different favourite foods, TV shows, films, and style, every child starts with a different natural sleeping pattern. This can be a challenge to adjust to, especially for new parents who are discovering their child’s sleep pattern for the first time. This is why it can be helpful to know the sleeping stages of childhood; as they grow, your child’s sleeping needs will change. Even though there can be a wide variation in sleep patterns and needs, especially in the first year of life, we’ve drawn up a handy guide for what to expect as your child grows.

Newborns: 0 – 3 Months Old

Newborns will typically sleep for 30 minutes to 4 hours at a time, adding up to 11 – 19 hours of sleep per day. There are usually no set patterns, and the unpredictability of when they’ll wake up can be challenging. It’s a good idea for parents to adapt their schedule to fit their little one’s needs for food, changing of nappies, and nurturing.

At birth, our circadian rhythm hasn’t developed, so most newborns won’t know the difference between sleeping during the day and during the night. It will take them a few weeks to get used to the idea of being awake when the sun’s up and sleeping when the stars are out. If, after a few weeks, your baby still seems to have days and nights mixed up, you can help set their internal clock. Do this by increasing playtime, social interactions, and household noises during the day. However, keep lights dimmed, voices low, and stimulation to a minimum in the evening and night. This will help your newborn adjust to the idea of relaxing in the evening before going to bed.

You can read more about circadian rhythm here.

Newborns also don’t have the same type of sleep as adults; they tend to be more animated. A newborn will spend about 50% of their time in ‘active’ REM sleep. This can involve smiles, whimpers, and movements. They’ll spend the other 50% in quieter, non-REM sleep, which can involve startle responses and sucking movements.1

Once your little one reaches 6 – 8 weeks, they will manage to stay happy and alert for only up to two hours at a time. By recognising early signs of sleepiness, you can start to put your child down to sleep while they’re drowsy – but still awake. This’ll help them become ‘self-soothers’, so that they’ll be able to fall asleep and put themselves back to sleep when they wake at night – so you don’t have to struggle out of bed in the middle of the night!

Signs of sleepiness can include:
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Crying or whimpering
  • Yawning or stretching a lot
  • Pulling or flicking of their ear
  • Getting faint circles under the eyes
  • Staring blankly into space
  • Quiet and content after a feed
  • Turning away from people and moving objects

After eight weeks, you should be noticing that your newborn is sleeping for longer during the night. However, for some infants, this can take several months.

Infants: 4 – 11 Months Old

Infants often take several months to establish a regular sleep and napping routine.

By six months, all infants are capable of getting through the night without a feed. So-called ‘good-sleepers’, who apparently sleep through the night, are actually ‘self-soothers’. They go back to sleep by themselves after brief awakenings. ‘Signallers’ will signal that they’re awake with a cry and may need rocking or nursing back to sleep. However, they’ll eventually learn to get back to sleep by themselves.

By nine months, around 60% of children take one nap in the morning and another in the afternoon, while over 70% will sleep through the night.2

Your infant will typically sleep in 60-minute cycles, so brief arousals during the night are common.

Toddlers: 1 – 2 Years Old

A toddler will typically need at least 11 hours of sleep every 24 hours. If your little one goes to bed between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., then they’ll wake up between 6.30 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Before they’re two-years-old, most toddlers will only have one nap per day. However, don’t go out of your way to stop them from napping – sometimes, even a three-year-old will benefit from two naps per day.

As toddlers become more active and their language skills develop, they are better at resisting bedtime. They’ll even express fear or separation anxiety, but it’s important that you don’t give in. A good way to help your toddler feel better about being left alone is to leave their favourite toy or blanket with them, as this might help them fall asleep. Even better, it could comfort them if they wake up during the night and will help them go back to sleep without waking you up.

Reinforcing good behaviour with a consistent approach, and a regular schedule, will be increasingly important at this stage.

Pre-Schoolers: 3 – 5 Years Old

After their third birthday, many children will start to give up naps during the day – but let them nap if they’re sleepy. A good routine at this age is to get them to bed between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. at night, and they’ll get their needed 12 – 14 hours of sleep.

Remember, pre-schoolers can be very stubborn when they don’t want to go to bed – so it’s important that you maintain a consistent approach! Keeping to a regular bedtime routine at this age can help your child accept bedtime. Include things that your child enjoys, but make sure they’re relaxing things, like reading books, playing with quiet toys, or even a bath. You can read more about establishing a regular routine so that your little one gets the best sleep here.

School Age: 6 – 12 Years Old

Your child’s wake up time will be dictated by the time they need to get ready for school. Children in this stage of their life need 9 – 11 years of sleep each night, though some children may need more.

Sleepiness during the day, mood swings, and behavioural problems could be signs that a child isn’t getting enough sleep. Keep an eye out for these, as lack of sleep can lead to difficulty concentrating. This can make school even more challenging for children adjusting to the new routine.

When school starts, your child’s sleep will have a new threat; homework. This will take up your child’s time and may even make them feel anxious. Encourage your child to finish their homework early in the evening, so that they have plenty of time to wind down and relax before bedtime.

At this stage, your child will also be spending much of their free time on phones, watching the TV, or using the internet. Watching TV and looking at their phones around bedtime can make them resist going to sleep even more, and it’ll also make falling asleep difficult. If your child isn’t sleeping well, it’s a good idea to limit their time watching TV or looking at their phone. Your child may benefit from quieter activities, such as taking a bath, reading bedtime stories or making up stories, drawing, or colouring.

 

Teenagers: 13 – 17 Years Old

 

Teenagers need 8 – 10 hours of sleep each night, but very few will get this long in bed. Recent studies suggest that most teenagers are getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep.3 Lack of sleep can affect mood, concentration, risk-taking behaviour, diet, and immunity from illness. If your older teenager drives, make sure they get their full hours of needed sleep each night.

Sleep deprivation in this stage is likely a result of a conflict between a teenager’s internal body clock and school schedules. At or around puberty, teens naturally become more alert late in the evening. Their body clocks shift a few hours back, so they might only become sleepy at midnight. Teenagers will juggle exams, homework, extra-curricular activities, having a social life, and even having a part-time job, so most older teenagers will only sleep after 11 p.m.

This means that, as they need to get up early for school, their sleep time is put under pressure. Many teens will gather a sleep debt during the week, so the weekend is the perfect time to catch up on this missed sleep. However, sleeping in on the weekends isn’t the best idea – they’ll disrupt their sleeping pattern, and this keeps them sleepy during the week.

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Footnotes

  1. https://www.sleepio.com/articles/parent-sleep/the-science-of-sleeping-in-childhood/
  2. https://www.sleepio.com/articles/parent-sleep/the-science-of-sleeping-in-childhood/
  3. https://www.sleepio.com/articles/parent-sleep/the-science-of-sleeping-in-childhood/
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