The Power of Sleep: How Much Sleep Is Enough Sleep and Why?
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
Parents who ask me this question ask because their child's sleep is so broken and unpredictable during the day or night...or usually both.
Do you feel like you never know if your baby is getting the right kind of sleep? Imagine if your child was sleeping 11-12 hours at night, do you think you'd still be asking this question?
Parents who ask me this question ask because their child's sleep is so broken and unpredictable during the day or night...or usually both. I'm going to talk about sleep at its best, because like you, I want your child to have the best.
Why Babies Need A Lot of Sleep
For our purpose today, I'm highlighting aspects of the sleep cycle that are most beneficial and important in your child's growth. If you want a deeper dive into the science of sleep, you'll want to check out my post on "The Science of Sleep."
Stage 3 deep (non-REM) sleep is when your baby’s intricate bodily systems begin to repair cells, rejuvenate the immune system and spark growth and development. This is imperative for your child because growth hormones are being secreted to help them gain weight and sprout up, while cytokines are being produced to fight off infections and produce antibodies.
The first 3-4 hours of night sleep is spent mainly in this very deep sleep which is why your child often is not easily aroused during the first stretch of night. This is also the stretch that consolidates first when your child starts sleeping longer stretches at night.
Stage 4 deep (REM) sleep is when your baby’s brain kicks in for psychological function, neuropathway connections and dreams. What this means, is this is an integral stage of sleep that strengthens neural connections for learning. A child who learns well requires memory consolidation, and it primarily takes place during this stage of REM light sleep.
Light REM sleep follows deep sleep and is typically when nightwakings begin and often aligns with when parents themselves head to bed for the night. This is a more active stage of sleep, and it isn't until 6 months of age that your baby's inhibition of motor activity is more developed and REM sleep becomes more continuous. The actual transition out of deep into light sleep is also when nightwakings commonly occur.
Fragmented night sleep is not restorative because it is missing the full health-benefits of continuous night sleep, and that's why you wake up feeling not refreshed. And for you sleep deprived mamas out there, I'm sure you can attest to that.
Can naps make up for lost sleep from nighttime? As adults, you can make up for lost sleep by sleeping-in to recoup sleep debt. But babies need A LOT of sleep and it's usually impossible to use daytime naps as a trade-off for a broken night's rest. More on how naps and night sleep work together here.
Is My Baby Getting Enough Sleep?
There are always exceptions to the spectrum, but the best indicator for appropriate sleep levels is your child's mood and behaviour. A fussy baby with poor focusing skills or exhibits colic-like symptoms may be a result of inadequate sleep.
Consolidated night sleep leads to better naps, better naps lead to continuous night sleep. It's rare to get one without getting the other. And so far, this has proven to be true with the clients I've worked with. The problem with most babies who have fragmented night sleep is that their naps are also usually quite inconsistent or short as well. This then becomes a snowball effect of poor sleep day and night.
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
An older toddler lacking sleep may have behavioural issues: irritable, moody, extra clumsy, be challenged with more complex tasks or emotionally prone to meltdowns/tantrums. Sleep studies have shown that sleep debt can lead to learning difficulties, a lack of concentrate and even poor eating habits and childhood obesity. To bring it one step further, childhood obesity can cause sleep apnea (a temporary pause in breathing) due to extra fat deposits around the airway. Sleep apnea then perpetuates the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
What I've found, is that despite the proven importance and benefits of adequate sleep for the proper growth and well-being of every child, it seems sleep always falls short when compared to a healthy diet and regular exercise. But for those of you who are still reading this, it's clear to me you want to be the exception from that norm. I sure am cheering for you!!
How Much Sleep Does My Baby Need?
Baby is getting <10 hours of night sleep
This is the minimum requirement for children of all ages (yes even till they're 12 years old.) If your child is napping too much during the day and interfering with night sleep, naps may be shortened or age appropriately dropped to move sleep into night time. If your child is under 3 years of age and refuses or takes very short naps during the day, cortical hormone tends to build up and results in difficulties at bedtime and/or night wakings. Children who are getting <10 hours of night sleep usually find excellent results when working with a sleep consultant to increase the the overall number of hours their child is sleeping.
Baby is getting 11-12 hours of continuous night sleep
This is the sweet spot that balances night sleep and naps. Children who can sleep continuously for this length overnight should only be napping for a maximum of 2-4 hours during the daytime.
Baby is getting >12 hours of continuous night sleep
Rare but not unheard of, if this is your child, it's time to set a consistent earlier morning wake-up time. Children who sleep this length of time all in one go at night will often have trouble napping during the day. Without age appropriate naps, it's hard for young children (usually <3 years old) to have enough stamina to get through the day.
An endless number of variables affect your baby's sleep and that's what makes your child's sleep so difficult to decipher. I work with my clients using proven strategies that cater to your specific needs to give your child the best sleep. And here's what I know, you too want to give your child the best sleep.