Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris Psy.D.

The Land of Nod

How Much Sleep Do Kids Really Need?

The current debate about sleep requirements for kids and teens

Posted Feb 16, 2012

An extremely heated debate has just arisen in the field of pediatric sleep medicine—a field that is generally not very excitable.

In this week's issue of Pediatrics (a very well respected, peer-reviewed journal), University of South Australia's Health and Use of Time Group reported that kids' nightly sleep time has reduced by three-quarters of a minute for each year they studied. This should not be a surprising fact. As technology has taken over and children are often overscheduled, playing video games, watching TV and using iPads at night, bed times appear to slowly get pushed later and later. You may have heard about this study since a number of major news publications have reported about it earlier this week.

The debate in the field surrounds the authors' suggestion that recommendations for sleep requirements in children and adolescents are essentially subjective and not based in fact. This is really not true.

Many sleep experts have conducted studies on this topic. For example, one of the leading researchers in the field, Mary Carskadon (Brown University), and colleagues have published about the need for sleep in adolescents, as well as looking at the trend for later bedtimes and wake times in this population. Avi Sadeh (Tel Aviv University) has published many studies looking at sleep need in children, and has a lot of compelling research suggesting that extending sleep time in children can in fact dramatically improve their daytime functioning. Iglowstein and Jenni's 2003 publication in Pediatrics is widely cited as a standard of sleep requirements in kids. Paavonen and colleagues (2009) reported that kids who slept less than 9 hours each day had 3-5 times the odds of developing attention problems, behavior problems, and other psychiatric symptoms. See the links below for a few of the abstracts that I'm mentioning (this is a non-exhaustive list of the research, too).

Just because they are getting less sleep doesn't mean that they need less sleep—or that we should consider changing sleep recommendations.

We do, however, recognize that these studies (plus even more that I haven't added in this entry) are not perfect. They most often rely on parental report of children's time in bed. And, as we know, just because they're in bed does not necessarily mean they are asleep. Although we admittedly have more to learn in this area, to simply say that there's no evidence behind the field's recommendations of sleep requirements is simply not true.

So how much sleep should kids get? Adolescents need around 9 hours of sleep, children generally require between 10-12 hours depending on age, with naps being considered as well for younger children (adding on additional sleep over the 24-hour period).

That being said, we do recognize that there is a lot of individual variability in sleep need. Although we tend to be a "by the numbers society," I always stress that it is best to also evaluate daytime functioning to figure out your child's optimal sleep. Is your child generally alert and happy during the day? Awaken cranky or have a lot of irritability? Is your child falling asleep in school or easily on car rides? Has your child been struggling with attention, concentration, and memory issues which are impacting school performance? Does your child awaken spontaneously at the proper time most mornings? Does your child sleep a lot more on the weekends? These are all questions you should be asking.

So in summary, I always suggest that you read anything with a discerning eye—we need to make sure our kids are getting the sleep they need to grow both mentally and physically.



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