What are the sleep needs of young children?

Published on Wednesday, 03 October 2018
Last updated on Monday, 27 July 2020

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1 to 7 October is Sleep Awareness Week and although this year's focus is on the role of caffeine in our society, it's also a great opportunity to think about the sleep needs of younger Australians.

To understand why sleep is so important for children and determine how much downtime youngsters actually need, we sought the advice of Professor Sarah Blunden, Head of Paediatric Sleep Research and Clinical Psychologist at CQUniversity in South Australia.

Firstly, Professor Blunden, why is sleep so essential?

Sleep is important as it plays a role in the proper functioning of ALL body systems. Although we don't really know exactly the reason why we sleep, we know that we must sleep or we can become very ill.

Sleep is vital for physical and mental health, and without it, all body systems that are involved in either physical or mental health do not function well.

As such, poor sleep affects us in four main ways:

  1. Physiologically: it impacts our body systems, like cardiovascular and endocrine systems and physical health
  2. Psychologically: it affects our emotional and mental health
  3. Psychosocially: it influences our behaviour, peer relations and family relationships; and
  4. Cognitively: it impacts our ability to learn, focus and problem-solve.

At all ages, it's important that we sleep well and avoid 'sleep debt' to help us function well.

In terms of hours, how much sleep do babies, toddlers and children need?

There are a lot of individual differences between people and ages, and the ranges of what we think people need is very wide. However, here are some daily sleep recommendations from the American Sleep Foundation:

Age Recommended sleep duration Duration that may be appropriate Duration that is not recommended
Newborn (0 - 3 months) 14 to 17 hours 11 to 13 or 18 to 19 hours Less than 11 hours or more than 20 hours
Infant (4 - 11 months) 12 to 15 hours 10 to 11 or 16 to 18 hours Less than 10 hours or more than 19 hours
Toddler (1 – 2 years) 11 to 14 hours Nine to 10 or 15 to 16 hours Less than nine hours or more than 17 hours
Preschooler (3 – 5 years) 10 to 13 hours Eight to nine or 14 hours Less than eight hours or more than 15 hours
School-aged child (6 - 13 years) Nine to 11 hours Seven to eight or 12 hours Less than seven hours or more than 13 hours

What should parents do if their child is not sleeping well?

If your child is having trouble falling to sleep or not getting enough sleep, then try to establish what is contributing to the problem, so that you can go about solving it.

It helps to ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there an environmental and/or behavioural reason why they’re not sleeping well?
    Your child’s room may be too dark, too light, too noisy or too hot. They may be wide awake after a sugary drink late in the day. Or they may have a screen in their bedroom that they’re using when they should be sleeping. Whatever the reason, changes to your child’s environment and routine can help them sleep better.
  • Is there a physiological reason? Are they sick?
    If your child snores or is feeling unwell, for example, feverish or achy, it can be hard to sleep, so speak with a doctor if you're concerned about their physical health.
  • Is there a psychological reason for their sleeplessness? Are they worried about something or stressed?
    In this case, it can help to talk things through with your child, speak with their educator/school counsellor, and/or practice relaxation exercises to calm the mind and body.

If you are worried about your child's sleep, then I'd recommend that you seek assistance from your GP or child and youth health nurse. Sleep psychology is also an emerging field and there are some very helpful evidence-based websites to look at, including:

And lastly, are there any myths about sleep that you’d like to educate parents about?

Yes, there is the myth that children can sleep through the night. In actual fact, we all wake up in the night, because we wake at the end of each sleep cycle. It's just that we often don't remember waking up. Babies, particularly, cannot sleep through the night in general.

When it comes to tired parents, there is the myth that you can make up for lost sleep with a strong coffee or an energy drink, and this just isn't true.

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