My daughter and son-in-law recently took a trip and generously gave my wife and me the opportunity to babysit their three children: ages 2, 4 and 6. This was a fun, but exhausting, experience. There’s a reason that people in their 60s don’t have really young children! It was during our time with them that we were reminded how important sleep is to all of us.
Sleep (or lack of it) and problems getting kids to experience it, is critically important to the child and to everyone else living in the home. There’s a link between sleep, fatigue and a child’s behavior. Adults with fatigue may act tired and have no energy. But often, when children are tired, they act just the opposite with extreme behaviors and excess energy.
How much sleep a child needs is age-dependent. Even then, it can vary within the age group. Some adults function with six hours of sleep nightly, while some barely make it on eight to nine hours. It’s the same with children.
Babies sleep irregularly because their internal clocks are immature and undeveloped. Most newborns sleep about 16 to 20 hours daily. The sleep of a baby is generally regulated by her appetite. A baby will wake when hungry—often every two to three hours for the first few weeks of life, and then every four to five hours for weeks thereafter. By the age of 3 months, about 90 percent of babies sleep a consistent five- or six-hour stretch.
Some suggestions for helping your baby sleep include observing him for signs of fatigue. You’ll learn how to tell when your baby is ready for a nap or bedtime based on observed repeated behaviors like fussing, eye-rubbing, etc. Put your baby in the crib when he’s drowsy but still awake. Learning to go to bed and fall asleep while still awake is a difficult but necessary task. Always place your baby to sleep on his back with his face away from blankets and soft items.
By 6 months, an infant may have established regular nap and sleep patterns. Remember, babies are restless sleepers and often arouse for brief periods of time. Allow your 6- to 12-month-old a few minutes to quiet herself back to sleep. If you need to pick her up, do so quickly and get her back in bed as fast as possible. At about 8 to 9 months of age, babies normally develop separation anxiety. At this point, when your child wakes, don’t turn on lights or feed her. Try to allow her to fall back to sleep on her own and give minimal attention when you must.
Most 1- to 3-year-old toddlers sleep about 10 to 12 hours daily. The desire to be with mom and dad and not miss out on the fun can make bedtime a challenge. Keeping your child up to make him tired will likely not help and will only make him fussier and more difficult. Establish a bedtime routine so your child knows when it’s time for bed, based on when things occur. Make the ritual simple but repetitive. Dreams may begin at this age and interfere with sleep. But remember that a regular pattern of daytime activity and naps will help.
Next month, we’ll continue this discussion and address the sleep needs of preschoolers, school-aged children and teens.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day.