We all need sleep. But are you getting enough? Whether you’re a new parent wondering how long to let your baby sleep for, concerned about your teenager’s lack of sleep or an older adult wondering why you can’t seem to stop nodding off during the day, this article will look at how your sleep needs change during the course of your life.
The amount and type of sleep you need changes as you get older. However, how much sleep you need isn’t just about your age. Different people need different amounts; there is no magic number and you may find you need much more, or much less, than the average person. It isn’t always how long you sleep for that matters, but the quality of your sleep. Your needs for sleep can also change from day to day depending on the challenges you’re facing.
The information here is a general guide to how your need for sleep changes throughout the different stages of your life. However, as long as you’re feeling refreshed and alert the next day, you’re probably getting enough.
Babies develop at a rapid pace – they need about 17 hours of sleep each day to cope with this and help them to take in all the new things they are learning.
Your internal body clock that ties your sleep in with the daily cycle of day and night isn’t fully developed when you’re first born. Babies develop this during the first six months of their life and gradually adjust to sleeping more at night than during the day. It’s a good idea to get your baby into a set routine when he or she is around six to eight weeks old, to help prepare your baby for sleep.
Babies, like adults, alternate between periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (known as ‘active sleep’ in babies), which is when you dream, and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep (known as ‘quiet sleep’ in babies) – when you go into deep sleep (see The science of sleep for more information about the different types of sleep). However, babies spend a much higher proportion of their time in REM sleep than adults and less time in deep non-REM sleep, which means they wake more easily. They also alternate between the different stages much more often, which means they naturally wake more often during the night than adults do. However, they often fall back to sleep on their own within a few minutes.
Toddlers are very active and so need plenty of rest – most one to two-year-olds need between 10 and 13 hours of sleep a day. Some parents find that it’s better to let their toddler have one long sleep during the night, while others find it works best to let their toddler have a nap during the day and a shorter night-time sleep. If you’re a parent of a toddler, it’s important to work out what’s best for you and your child and to get into a set routine that works for you.
Active dreams and nightmares can start to be a particular problem at this age. Take some practical steps to try and prevent your child having nightmares, such as selecting what television programmes, if any, your toddler sees before he or she goes to bed.
Children are very active, and are learning and developing at a fast rate, so they still need plenty of sleep. Children’s sleep needs can vary – they generally need about nine to 10 hours of sleep per night and may gradually require less as they get older. As at any age, there is no set amount of time for how long we should sleep, but as a parent, you can judge if your child is getting enough sleep and exactly how much they need.
Teenagers generally need about nine hours sleep each night – however, they often don’t get enough. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to want to stay up late at night and then complain about getting up early for school in the morning; however, there may be some biological reasoning behind it. Your natural sleep pattern changes when you reach your teenage years. A hormone called melatonin, which is thought to promote sleepiness, is produced later in the evening when you’re a teenager – making you feel sleepy later at night. This is called delayed sleep phase syndrome.
If your teenager uses gadgets before going to bed, such as computers or mobile phones, the exposure to light and the stimulation to their mind can delay the onset of sleep. It’s best not to have any computers or televisions in your teenager’s bedroom so they aren’t tempted to turn them on.
Trying to go to bed at around the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning will help teenagers to get the sleep they need.
In general, adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep. However, some people can function after sleeping for much less time. You can cope with the occasional night of no or reduced sleep – you’ll just feel tired the next day. However, an ongoing lack of sleep (insomnia) may affect you both physically and mentally. This may impact on your ability to work productively or to do certain activities – such as driving – safely. See your doctor if you have problems sleeping and this affects how you function during the day. Your doctor may be able to give you advice on how to change your environment to help you sleep or may refer you to see a specialist, such as a sleep physician (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating sleep-related disorders).
The need for sleep doesn’t seem to decrease as you age – eight hours continues to be the optimum for most people. However, you generally have less deep sleep when you get older. As you sleep more lightly, you may wake more easily after the first three to four hours of sleep – and may find it harder to get back to sleep after you wake. Other health issues, such as needing to go to the toilet more often due to prostate problems, pain from osteoarthritis, and anxiety and depression may also impact on the amount and quality of sleep you get.
If you don’t get enough sleep at night, you may find yourself falling asleep more during the day. You may also find that you fall asleep earlier in the day and wake earlier in the morning.
Getting over changes to your sleep patterns (eg adjusting after jet lag), can also take longer when you’re older.
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Heath Information Team, October 2012.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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