Kids need a lot of sleep — eight to 10 hours a night for teenagers, nine to 11 hours for school-aged kids and 10 to 14 for preschoolers and toddlers. Unfortunately, up to 50% of kids in the U.S. don’t get as much as they need. And the lack of shut eye can impact weight management, intellectual functioning, mental health and even behavior.
“The established thinking is that sleep is the time the body regenerates itself,” says Ricky Mohon, MD, an expert in sleep medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “So, if you’re not getting enough, those recuperative things don’t happen as effectively.”
What happens when kids and teens lack sleep
In older kids, insufficient sleep presents as chronic fatigue, falling asleep during the day, difficulty concentrating or performing at peak, and even difficulty regulating emotions. In younger kids, it can look a lot like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): outbursts, behavioral problems and hyperactivity.
“While older children and adults appear sleepy when we don’t get enough sleep, young children may act the opposite. They may seem to have excess energy, be more irritable and act out,” says Stacey Simon, PhD, a sleep psychologist. “When children don’t get enough sleep, it can be hard to concentrate at school or manage emotions.”
How parents can help kids build healthy sleep habits
For some kids, sleep problems start with poor sleep habits. Many kids and teens are overscheduled, staying up too late finishing the day’s activities and getting up early for school.
“Children and teens have so many competing demands between school and homework, sports and activities, jobs and spending time with friends,” Dr. Simon says. “It can be very hard to get home, wind down and go to bed at a good time.”
Make bedtime a top priority
The best way to improve a child’s sleep is to increase the time they’re in bed. Create a consistent sleep schedule, with the same bedtimes and wake times every day, even on weekends and during the summer, to the best of your ability. If your child needs to change the time they wake up, for example when the school year begins or during a time change, focus on helping them make gradual shifts.
Building a bedtime routine can also help. For younger children, consider giving them a bath, looking at picture books, reading aloud or singing songs. For pre-teens and teens, try reading, listening to music, journaling or relaxation exercises. Whatever you choose, it is helpful to do the same things in the same order every night.
Limit screen time before bed to improve sleep
Keeping screens and phones out of bed and not using the bed as a hangout helps kids to associate it with sleep and sleep only, which will help them get to sleep faster and sleep better. We recommend turning off all electronics (phones and screens) and dimming the lights at least an hour before bed.
“Kids are taking devices to bed with them, playing games or communicating with friends,” says Stephen Hawkins, MD, a pediatric sleep specialist, “and the light from screens suppresses melatonin production. I like to tell patients that screens trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and if it’s daytime, your brain is not going to let you fall asleep.”
More tips to help your kid sleep
- Avoid giving your child caffeine, including energy drinks, at all times, but especially at least eight hours before bed.
- Ensure your child gets at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, but not too close to bedtime.
- It’s important for your child to eat regular meals throughout the day, but there’s nothing wrong with adding a light snack before bed.
- If proper sleep hygiene is in place and a child still struggles to fall asleep, talk to your pediatrician about trying a low dose of nightly melatonin. This supplement can especially be helpful for some neurodiverse children who have trouble winding down for bedtime.
What to know about sleep-disordered breathing
Breathing disorders present additional sleep problems for some kids.
“Sleep-disordered breathing is very common,” says Dr. Mohon. “About 10% to 15% of children and adolescents experience some degree of sleep apnea, with 2% to 5% of kids benefiting from medical or surgical treatment.”
A child who can’t breathe well at night can have fragmented sleep, which can potentially be dangerous.
When you should be concerned about kids snoring
Aside from overtiredness during the day, Dr. Mohon says a big indication of sleep breathing problems in kids is habitual snoring. Snoring is not considered normal in children and should be brought to the attention of your child’s doctor.
“It’s underappreciated that snoring in kids is not normal,” Dr. Hawkins says. “If a kid is snoring more than two nights a week, that’s too much. It could be sleep apnea, asthma, allergies or nasal congestion. Either way, we want to get it checked out.”