Sleep patterns and behaviour for children

Your child needs good quality sleep for their growth, development and learning. While your child sleeps, their brain and body are working hard to recover, restore and prepare for the next day. 

Importance of sleep

When children have enough sleep, they are likely to be happier, have more energy and be more active.  

A few of the benefits of sleep

  • Helps your child’s immune system  
  • Supports their growth and physical health  
  • Enhances concentration  
  • Strengthens their immune system  
  • Improves their mood and behaviour  
  • Improves concentration and focus  
  • Improved mental health outcomes in adulthood  

“There is a huge reduction in a lot of negative mental health outcomes in adulthood, if children sleep well. Think of it as an investment” - Dr Chris Seton (Paediatric & Adolescent Sleep Physician) 

If your child doesn’t get enough sleep, it can impact their physical, emotional and cognitive health. Not enough sleep can make it difficult for your child to learn and concentrate, manage their emotions, follow directions, be creative, solve problems and they may be more likely to get unwell. All these functions are essential for children to learn and develop effectively.  

Sleep recommendations

The Australian Department of Health have worked with a number of experts to understand what the best sleep recommendations are for children in order to support their healthy growth and development. The Sleep Guidelines are encompassed in the overall Australian 24-hour Movement Guidelines.  

Sleep recommendations by age category

  • Birth to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours of good quality sleep, including naps 
  • 4 to 11 months: 12 to 16 hours of good quality sleep every 24 hours, including naps  
  • 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep every 24 hours, including naps, with consistent sleep and wake-up times  
  • 3-5 years: 10 to 13 hours of good quality sleep every 24 hours, with consistent sleep and wake-up times. Some preschoolers still need naps at this age.  
  • 5-13 years: 9 to 11 hours of good quality and uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours  
  • 14 to 17 years: 8-10 hours of good quality and uninterrupted sleep every 24 hours  

Remember, this is just a guide and every child is different. Your child may need more or less sleep than this. 

See Improving your child's sleep patterns for tips on how to support your child to achieve these guidelines. 

Impact of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a condition which occurs when children don’t get enough sleep. If your child doesn't get their recommended sleep, it can impact physical, emotional and cognitive health. 

Not enough sleep can make it difficult for your child to learn and concentrate, manage their emotions, follow directions, be creative, and problem-solve. They may also be more likely to get sick as their immune system isn’t working at an optimal level. All of these functions are essential for your child to learn and develop effectively.  

See Improving your child's sleep patterns for more tips on how to reach the sleep recommendations. 

Sleep cycles

During sleep there are many changes that happen to the body. It is a time for repairing cells, reducing stress and building new tissue. There is an overall drop in heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature and there are complex changes in brain activity. This all depends on the stage of sleep being experienced. 

There are two main phases in the sleep cycle:

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM)

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) is typically what is thought of when thinking of someone being asleep. It is characterised by slow breathing, slow heart rate and a deeper state of sleep.  

When in NREM, the body goes through three stages:  

  • NREM- Stage 1: transition between being awake and sleep.  

  • NREM- Stage 2 and 3: eye movements stop, body temperature falls and with each further stage there is a progression towards deeper sleep. 

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is a unique phase of sleep characterised by random rapid eye movement. The body acts similarly to being awake by slightly increasing heart rate, blood pressure and modifying breathing. 

The main difference is that in the sleep state, the eyes remain closed, and the body has a loss of muscle tone, so dreams are not physically acted out. It is the stage of sleep where most dreams occur, and they usually get longer the more we sleep each night.

The regulation of sleep

Sleep is largely controlled by sleep pressure and circadian rhythms. 

Sleep pressure (or homeostasis)

This is where the body balances the level of wakefulness with the need for sleep. If a child has been awake for an extended period of time, sleep pressure tells our body it is time to get some sleep regardless of the time of day or night. After a waking period of around 15 hours, the pressure to sleep becomes greater and we get tired.

Circadian rhythms

This is an internal body clock with a 24-hour cycle that regulates biological and physiological processes. It predicts environmental changes around us so that our bodies can adapt. This is the most noticeable when travelling overseas and the times of daylight are modified. 

In ideal situations, the circadian rhythm will naturally rise in the early morning, promoting wakefulness and alertness, and will reach a peak in the evening.  With the onset of darkness, the circadian rhythm drops to the lowest level and helps to maintain sleep. 

Signs of a tired child

Some tired signs in children are more obvious than others and are some may be less obvious. 

Tired signs

  • Yawning  
  • Rubbing their eyes  
  • Slower movements  
  • Staring for long periods of time  
  • Sucking fingers or hands  
  • Irritable behaviour  
  • Jerky movements  
  • Crying  
  • Fussy eating  
  • Becoming cling  
  • Drowsy  
  • Losing interest in activities or toys  

Interestingly for young children, as they become more tired, they can become more active. They can be energising themselves to overcome sleep deprivation. Get to know your child’s tired signs to ensure they are getting the right amount of sleep to effectively rest, learn and grow.  

Sleep training

Helping your child get good quality sleep can be one of the more demanding aspects of being a parent. If you have been struggling with ways to get your child to sleep, the topic of sleep training may have popped up in your searches. 

Sleep training is an umbrella term with a collection of methods all aiming to help a baby fall asleep with independence. It’s important to note there is no one-size-fits-all approach and the best way to train you child to sleep independently is one that is developmentally appropriate and has the foundations of healthy sleep routine and sleep hygiene in place. 

Expecting a miracle from any sleep training method is bound to end in disappointment. 

What does the research say about sleep training?

While many may see sleep training as a controversial practice where parents are encouraged to let a baby “Cry it out” when going to sleep, this isn’t actually what is recommended in the research. It is a much broader and gentler approach to helping a baby fall asleep.

Methods often used in sleep training include: 

  • information about normal sleep patterns 

  • Information about the use and management of pacifiers/dummies 

  • identifying sleep problems and solutions 

  • sleep management plans 

  • having someone to reach out to for help 

  • sleep diaries for parents 

  • face to face training 

  • independent settling 

  • gradual removal of parental presence where appropriate 

  • follow up appointments.  

Every child is unique and has a slightly different developmental pathway. Finding the balance between supporting your child and establishing consistent sleep habits is a family decision. Becoming informed about normal sleep patterns and methods of sleep training may help increase nighttime sleep patterns.  

No parent should be made to feel guilty about the choices they make in getting their child to sleep. Being aware of the evidence, parents are free to make up their own minds to care for their babies. 

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024