Children’s sleep: finding out how much is enough

From Raising Children Network

Sleep matters. Before children arrive in a family’s life, sleep might have been nice-to-have, but it quickly becomes a must-have.

Sleep keeps us healthy and alert – not to mention nice to be around! Without it, children and adults feel awful and have less energy and attention for things. Importantly, bad sleep also costs a lot of money. It is one of the top reasons that parents go to see doctors and other health professionals when their children are babies or toddlers.

A common question for parents is how much sleep their babies and children should be getting. Current guidelines recommend that 3-5-year-olds should sleep 11-13 hours a night and 6-9-year-olds should sleep 10-11 hours a night. But while those are the official guidelines, they’re based on average sleep patterns, not how much sleep children actually need. We don’t know if there are specific amounts of sleep that children need to have the best behaviour, attention and wellbeing.

Our group at the Centre for Community Child Health at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute is trying to find out. We are looking at the sleep patterns of 10,000 children from all around Australia who are part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. (You might know about this study because of the ABC TV program Life at 9 and the ones before it, Life at 7, 5, 3, and 1). Part of the study is a detailed diary that parents fill out, recording every activity their child does over 24 hours. That gives researchers lots of material to work with!

Last year, we took all the information on sleep that was collected in the diaries and summarised the sleep patterns of Australian children aged 0-9 years. We were surprised by the huge ranges in children’s sleep patterns over a 24 hour period. For example, some 1-year-olds slept 10 hours whereas others slept for 18 hours. Some 5-year-olds slept for 8 hours while others got 14 hours. Every age range had big differences. These big differences in children’s sleep make a big difference to their families’ lives.

Now that we have this information, we can look at whether different amounts of sleep for children make a difference for children’s and parents’ health and wellbeing. We are starting by looking at how much sleep children actually get over 24 hours. This will tell us if the current sleep guidelines are useful or if they need updating.

After that, we will look at things like bedtimes and wake times, how often children wake up overnight, and how long they stay awake for. By looking at these aspects of sleep, we hope to find out whether there are things that are more important than just the number of hours children sleep. When we finish, we hope that we can help parents and health professionals to have the most accurate information about children’s sleep to help families be as happy and healthy as possible. 

If you want more information about your child’s sleep, please visit the fantastic sleep pages at the Raising Children Network website, raisingchildren.net.au (listed by age group e.g. newborns, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, school-age), or speak to your GP or child and family health nurse. 

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