As any sleep-deprived new parent will tell you, sleep is important to one’s overall health and wellbeing. It is the time when our minds rest and our bodies rejuvenate. For children, it is especially important. When you consider the immense amount of growth and development that occurs during a child’s infancy and early years, it’s amazing that they don’t sleep all of the time. But of course they don’t.
Babies, especially newborns, need constant contact and reassurance to feel secure in this strange, new world. And all infants, especially those who sleep apart from their mothers, will be looking for that close contact around the clock. Toddlers too are not big on sleeping because they are busy developing new skills and exploring their world—day and night.
Sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley points out in her No-Cry Nap Solution (2009) that inadequate sleep for children can lead to changes in temperament, mood, behavior, and fatigue. Noted anthropologists and sleep researchers Dr. James McKenna and Dr. Lee Gettler at the University of Notre Dame point out that infant sleep and feeding (particularly breastfeeding) are strongly connected. They suggest that optimal sleep can be achieved when breastfeeding mothers and babies safely co-sleep, since research suggests that parents of breastfed babies sleep an average of 40–45 minutes longer than parents of formula-fed peers and awakenings tend to be less disruptive for co-sleeping parents.
Lactation consultant and La Leche League leader Diane Wiessinger and colleagues point out in Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family (2015) that sleep is often a period of actual growth for young children. But rather than “a problem to be solved,” Wiessinger and her co-authors suggest, if we set our expectations appropriately and implement some useful strategies, it can be “a relaxed and straightforward part of every day.”
Generally speaking, parents find that they are getting more sleep and feeling better if they can readjust their expectations regarding infant sleep and their definition of “sleeping through the night.” In fact, what parents think of as “sleeping through the night” should change over time. Consider that during the newborn stage—the first 4-6 weeks—babies seem to need about 6-7 sleep periods throughout the day, but they also have a physiological need to feed at least 8 times in each 24-hour period. As they grow, their digestive system matures and they develop circadian rhythms, so they develop a longer stretch of sleep overnight—but we’re not talking about a 10-hour stretch. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), going to sleep in the evening and staying asleep until morning would not be healthy for a young child. A “good sleeper,” the national pediatric group notes is not a child who does not wake up, but rather one who can settle down again with relative ease.
Going to sleep in the evening and staying asleep for the entire night is not normal for at least the first year; frequent feedings, during the day and at night, ensure that babies get the nutrients they need to grow and reduces their risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in infants between the ages of 1 month and 1 year. “Sleeping through the night” in early childhood is usually considered to be a 5-hour stretch of sleep followed by a period of wakefulness, another period of sleep—or several periods of wakefulness and sleep.
How much sleep is enough?
The following chart provides a “rule of thumb” for sleep needs of healthy, full-term infants and toddlers. Parents should know that sleep time can be affected by many factors, such as illness, growth spurts, a mother’s return to work outside the home, family travel, child care provider practices, sleep environment, any sort of change in schedule, and more. Rather than trying to force your child into a structured sleep schedule, parents should think of their child’s wakefulness and sleep in terms of “patterns” of behavior that will become somewhat more flexible (Wiessinger and colleagues call this “nudgeable”) as time goes on. Focus on expectations for your child’s sleep that are both developmentally appropriate and responsive to your child’s and your family’s needs. Flexibility will be key as your child goes through a wide range of developmental stages during the early years, especially within the first 12 months. For example, newborn babies need to feed at least 8 times in each 24-hour period. While that may leave little time for sleep, parents should understand that as a newborn grows and his breastfeeding skills develop, he will breastfeed more efficiently and awaken less often.
Children’s sleep time will vary, and an hour or two of difference from the range in the chart below may be fine for your child. Watch for your child to be on-target with other signs of physical health, including growth, developmental milestones (sitting, crawling, walking), feedings, and diapers (wet and dirty) to know they are getting enough to eat and plenty of sleep. Also, be aware of signs of stress, including fatigue, fussy temperament, and poor feeding. If you notice any changes in energy, mood, or feeding, your child may need a bit more sleep.
Here are some estimated sleep patterns of young children, ages 0–3 years (recommendations for total sleep, naps and nighttime, during a 24-hour period from the National Sleep Foundation).
|Newborn(0–2 months) ||14–17 hours |
Sleep at this age is typically in 2- to 4-hour periods. Newborns don’t yet have day/night patterns, and they need at least 8 breastfeedings per 24-hour period.
|2–6 months ||12–15 hours |
Sleep patterns begin to develop at this age, watch for day/night differences, and a 4-6 hour period of sleep, followed by a period of wakefulness and then more sleep. Also, 3 to 4 naps per day are typical.
|7–12 months ||12–15 hours |
Nighttime wakings are still expected—and normal. Developing a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine can help ensure your child gets enough sleep. Expect 2 to 3 naps per day.
|12–24months ||11–14 hours |
Due to busy family schedules and children’s engagement with developing motor skills, many fall short of their ideal sleep goals. Naps drop down to 1 or 2 a day.
|24–36 months ||10–13 hours|
Bedtime tends to be between 7 and 9 p.m., with a wake-up time of between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. for children ages 2 and 3. (Nighttime wake-ups can still happen.) Most children are down to 1 nap, which can range from about 1–3 hours in the afternoon.