Good sleep and bedtime habits nourish children’s emotional, physical and intellectual health

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the IS­U Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

Study after study reveals that sleep deprivation is epidemic in our young children, but believe me, anyone who has worked daily with children knew about the epidemic long before the studies hit the news. Childcare and school teachers face the fallout of children’s sleep deprivation in vivid detail every day.

Up to 85% of our children are staying awake much too late at night. Others aren’t getting a daytime nap when they need it.  Children need to get an adequate amount of sleep each and every day, not just on weekends, otherwise, their bodies and minds just don’t function very well. Just as food and water nourish the body, good sleep plays a major role in nourishment. Children’s development in their most formative years doesn’t progress well if children are undernourished in terms of their sleep.

Not getting enough daily sleep impacts children’s family and peer relationships. Many behaviour problems can be directly tracked back to insufficient sleep. It ends up creating a hassled family life and, in some extreme cases, even medicated children. Children trying to cope with too little sleep have less stamina for dealing with life’s everyday stresses. They become moody and have more trouble controlling themselves during frustration, acting out at the slightest provocation. 

Simple changes in a schedule or routine often bring on a protest of tears.  When children are suffering from poor sleep habits, any new skill or task overwhelms them.  They end up giving up, experiencing failure rather than persisting to succeed, undermining confidence and self-esteem.

“Children trying to cope with too little sleep have less stamina for dealing with life’s everyday stresses.”

Losing even a couple hours of sleep a night can sap children’s mental energy. Lack of curiosity and disinterest in learning new things is a symptom of too little sleep. Lack of sleep also interferes with children’s school performance. In particular, the parts of a child’s brain that controls short-term memory doesn’t function as well as it should resulting in lack of attention. 

If parents don’t establish good sleep habits for children, including reasonable bedtimes and naps, children don’t learn to listen to their body’s internal sleep cues. If cues for rest and relaxation are ignored, children often behave wild and hyper just trying to keep themselves awake. Sadly, the more tired children become the more active they become creating a never ending spiral.

If you find your child consistently melts down, cries, or whines at the drop of a hat, it’s time to review the sleep routines you’ve established. Emotional overload happens to all children from time to time, but acting out or regressing to earlier immature behaviour is always a child’s first response to frustration and a cry for help. In many cases, the extra help they need isn’t more playtime, television shows, special lessons, time in/time out, or medicine. What they may desperately need is regular, nourishing sleep.

You may wonder how much sleep children need each day. The younger the child, the more sleep he or she needs to fuel very rapid growth. Every child is different, some need more sleep, some a little less, so it takes close observation to see what suits your child best.

When you determine your child’s daily sleep needs, include full nights of sleep and daytime naps ranging from 1/2 hour to 2 hours. Infants up to 6 months benefit from three daytime naps. From 6 to 18 months, children need two daytime naps. Children 18 months to age 5 typically need one daily nap.  The chart below gives you a good estimate of how much total daily sleep a typical child needs at various ages. Compare the chart to the amount of sleep your child gets at childcare and home combined, then determine if your child’s sleep patterns should  be adjusted.

“Every child is a bit different, some need more sleep, some a little less.”

Daily hours of sleep
1 month
15.5 – 17 hours
3 months
15 hours
6 months
14.5 hours
9 months
14 hours
12 months
13.5 hours
18 months
13.5 hours
2 years
13 hours
3 years
12 hours
4 years
11.5 hours
5 years
11 hours
6 years
10.5 hours
7 years
10.5 hours