Children and normal sleep patterns (AKA "parental sleep deprivation")

By Dr Megan Yap - PaediatricianGeneral03 Aug 2017

Why is sleep such a big issue?

Sleep affects EVERYTHING

  • Mood
  • Behaviour
  • Attention
  • Appetite
  • Relationships and social interactions
  • Emotional regulation
  • Learning
  • Etc etc – you get the picture

I am a parent.  I know how bad it is when kids don’t sleep – for them AND for us.  Goodness, even looking after kids when they DO actually sleep is exhausting!  Both my kids have had horrific runs of sleep disturbance at times (in addition to being power-spewers – but that is another story/blog post), where my husband and I have been transformed into walking, irritable, cranky zombies.  It is stressful, hard and very unpleasant (to put it politely).

I see a lot of new parents, and one of the most common questions that I get about sleep is – “What is normal?”


Sleep Onset

Most children will fall asleep within 20-30 minutes of “lights out/no talking.”  For some children it is faster, for other children slightly longer.  If it is taking a child 45 minutes or more to fall asleep, this could be indicative of a problem.

Sleep duration

Normal sleep duration for a child differs depending on their age.  The National Sleep Foundation (USA) gives the following guidelines:

  • <18 months:  14-15 hours/day
  • 1.5-3 years: 12-14 hours/day
  • 3-5 years:  11-13 hours/day
  • 5-12 years:  10-11 hours/day
  • Teens: 8.5-9.5 hours/day

What about waking through the night?

Again, “normal” depends on the age of the child

  • Newborn babies can wake 3 hourly or even more frequently to feed
  • School age children often sleep through, or wake once to go the the toilet overnight
  • It is okay to wake, as long as they can settle back to sleep again

Sleep cycles

Through the night, everyone cycles through REM and non-REM sleep

  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement) = light sleep
  • non-REM = deep, restful sleep

The longest cycle is at the start of the night (ie the most restful sleep you get for longer), getting shorter towards morning.

Sleep hygiene – this is for ALL children (and adults too!)

What does it mean?  

  • Set a bedtime and stick to it (for my kids it is “bedtime 7pm; lights out/no talking 7.30pm”)
  • Calm bedtime routine
  • No screen time (iPads, computers, TV, smart phones etc) 2-3 hours prior to bed
  • Playing with Lego, reading, drawing, talking are all good options
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate) after 3pm
  • Use the bed only for sleep (no reading in bed, no playing with toys, playing on iPad etc)

Some of the next most common questions about sleep are, “What do I do when…”

  • My child won’t go to sleep (ie they keep getting up)?
  • My child lies in bed awake for hours?
  • My child gets up every hour over night?
  • My child is scared of the dark (or monsters under the bed/vampires/nightmares)?
  • My child talks/walks in their sleep?

BUT… those questions and answers are for another day!!

Until next time… Sleep tight!!

xx Dr Megs

Acknowledgement:  Information credit to my awesome colleague and friend Dr Kirsten Zahnow (paediatrician), who presented some of this topic with me at a recent “Big Day Out” education day for local medical and education staff in Ipswich.

For more from Dr Megan Yap visit her blog – Kids Health Guru






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