Kids Sleep Series: Changing Sleep Patterns with Age

During infancy and childhood your child undergoes a period of rapid growth and development.  Whilst children are growing physically and developing cognitively, their sleep patterns are also undergoing dramatic changes as the brain develops and matures.  Here we discuss the normal changes in sleep that occur with increasing age from infancy through to adolescence.


The old saying, ‘sleeping like a baby’ stems from the fact that infants spend a large percentage of each day asleep.  Newborn infants can spend over 80% of each day asleep.  The amount of sleep gradually decreases with increasing age, associated with significant changes in the structure and distribution of sleep.  During infancy sleep is divided into two sleep states; active and quiet sleep.  Active sleep is associated with regular movements and awakenings and is the immature equivalent of REM or dream sleep seen in adults.  Quiet sleep is associated with few movements, quiet breathing and respiration and infrequent awakenings, and is the precursor to non-REM sleep seen in adults.  A newborn infant will spend half their sleep time in active and half in quiet sleep with a gradual decrease in the proportion of active sleep and increase in the proportion of quiet sleep with increasing age.  Similarly, newborn infants will sleep equal amounts during the day and the night but as they get older sleep becomes consolidated to night with a longer sleep period overnight and one or two naps during the day.  By approximately 6 months of age the adult-like sleep patterns of REM and non-REM sleep begin to develop.


Maturation of sleep continues during childhood.  The sleep patterns continue to become more adult-like and the total amount of sleep gradually decreases.  Pre-school children will average approximately 12-15hrs of sleep each day whilst school aged children average 10-12 hours of sleep each day.  Pre-school and school aged children usually have a greater sleep-drive than adults meaning they will fall asleep more easily when they are tired.  Furthermore, a number of benign sleep problems can arise in this age group including bed wetting, sleep talking, night mares and night terrors.  All of these are normal occurrences associated with immaturity of sleep and your child will grow out of them.  However, if they are causing you or your child undue concern please see your GP.


It is well known that teenagers like to sleep in and while most people will blame this on laziness there is actually a physiological basis for this desire to sleep late.  Many teenagers experience a phenomenon known as delayed sleep phase which means that they have a physiological preference towards going to sleep late and waking up late.  Add to this the pressures of school, extra-curricular activities and socialising and you can see why teenagers often do not get the recommended 9-10 hours of sleep they need each night.  As a result, most teenagers will have relative sleep deprivation on school nights, due to going to bed late whilst having to get up at a specified time for school, and will catch-up on sleep on the weekends usually with long sleep-ins.  It is important to encourage healthy sleep patterns in your teenager which can be done by encouraging a sleep routine with regular bed and wake times, encouraging regular exercise and avoidance of caffeine in the afternoons.

In summary, changes in sleep patterns as well as the duration of sleep are a normal part of the maturation process towards adult sleep patterns.  While the structure and amount of sleep your child requires will change as they grow up, maintaining a healthy sleep routine with regular bed and wake times, a soothing pre-bed routine and avoidance of stimulation before bed will help to ensure your child is sleeping soundly at every age.