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Sleep 101

Toddler sleeping with teddy bear

​Sleeping is such a natural activity that you might wonder why your child has a hard time learning how to do it. Rest assured, you don't have to be a sleep scientist to figure out how to help your child sleep better at night. Just being familiar with a few ba​​sic principles will ​give you the knowledge you need.

What is sleep?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, sleep is a "natural, periodic state of rest for the mind and body, in which the eyes usually close and consciousness is lost." Sleep might not always seem natural to new parents, but eventually you and your baby or toddler will enjoy a full night's rest. In the meantime, realize that children sleep differently than adults. For example, babies dream half the time they're asleep, which is far longer than adults.

More than a century of sleep research proves that children move through four sleep cycles, six to eight times each night. The first stage is the lightest and easiest from which to wake. They then move through three deeper stages of sleep, and back into, and hopefully through, the first cycle again.

Parents can help children make their way through the first cycle and into deeper sleep independently by laying them down while they're still awake. Furthermore, resist the urge to rock your baby to sleep in front of the TV or to lie down in your bed with him; if you do and your baby wakes up during the night in his crib, he'll be in unfamiliar surroundings because those things won't be there. In other words, try to put your child to sleep in the place he will be sleeping.

How much sleep does my child need?
Children need different amounts of sleep, depending on their age. From birth to 6 months, babies need 14 to 16 hours of sleep, with 8 to 11 hours coming during the night. As children grow, they sleep less during the day and more at night.

Here are sleep needs for children as they get older:

  • 9 to 12 months: 14 hours total; 3 hours of naps during the day
  • 18 months to 2 years: 13 hours total; one 3-hour nap each day
  • 3 years: 12 hours total; one 1-hour nap each day
  • 4 to 5 years: 11 hours at night
  • 6 to 9 years: 10 hours at night
  • 10 to 14 years: 9 hours at night
  • 15 to 18 years: 8 hours at night

As children grow, they'll move through fewer sleep cycles and sleep for longer stretches at night. Eventually, they won't sleep at all during the day. While sleep is a complex human activity, it is also a natural one, and your child will gradually learn to do it successfully.

Learn more about this topic in Good Night, Sweet Dreams, I Love You, Now Get Into Bed and Go to Sleep! by Patrick C. Friman, PhD.

This content was created by Boys Town expert Pat Friman. To learn more about him, visit his expert page here.