Little ones need three main things to thrive: Loving, supportive parents and caregivers who interact with them in meaningful ways, adequate nutrition and, you guessed it, adequate sleep.
Sleep is important throughout our lives, but especially during the early years when the brain is developing in critical ways.
Why is Sleep Important for Babies & Toddlers?
Aside from curbing meltdowns and keeping your little one alert and content, sleep supports development in a few key ways:
It releases growth hormones. This happens during deep sleep, and researchers have found that children with low levels of growth hormones sleep less deeply than the average child.
It reduces obesity risk. Studies show that lack of sleep may interfere with our ability to produce a hormone that signals us to stop eating when we’re full. What’s more, tired kiddos tend to be less active, thereby burning fewer calories.
It increases attention span and learning. Research shows that children who did not get sufficient sleep during the first 3 years of life were more likely to display attention problems and lower cognitive performance at age 6.
It decreases behavioral problems. That same research on 6 year-olds showed that insufficient sleep during the early years led to hyperactivity and impulsivity. These effects persisted, even if children started getting more sleep.
How Do Sleeping Patterns Develop?
In the beginning, infant sleep is notoriously irregular. This is normal. Newborns need to eat frequently, and they haven’t yet figured out the difference between night and day. What’s more, they spend about half of their asleep time in “active” sleep (also known as rapid eye movement, or REM sleep). During active sleep they may move, twitch, make noise, and wake up easily.
As they mature, babies spend increasingly less time in active sleep and more time in deep sleep (also known as non-rapid eye movement, or NREM sleep).
Around ages 2-4 months, sleep patterns begin to emerge with longer nighttime stretches and more predictable daytime naps.
Babies continue to sleep more during the night and less during the day, although they need an afternoon nap into their preschool years.
The evolution of sleeping patterns isn’t always a smooth process. Many little ones go through periods of sleep regression, when they start waking up more at night and fighting naps. You can read about typical sleep regression phases, why they happen, and what to do about them here.
How Much Sleep Do Babies & Toddlers Need?
When it comes to sleep, every child’s needs are different. Here are general guidelines:
|Age||Total Hours of Sleep||Total Nighttime Hours||Total Daytime Hours|
|Newborn – 2 months||16-18||8-9||7-9|
|4-6 months||14-15 total||10||4-5|
Signs Your Child is Not Getting Enough Sleep
Your baby may need more sleep if he:
- Turns away from stimulation
- Appears disinterested in his surroundings
- Habitually rubs his eyes or pulls on his ears
- Yawns frequently
- Has feeding problems
- Is especially fussy
Your toddler may need more sleep if he is:
- Especially moody, clingy, or over-active (being tired can cause a stress hormone called cortisol to kick in, resulting in a burst of energy)
- Unusually accident-prone
- Difficult to awaken
It’s important to note that these signs may be the result of something other than lack of sleep, and that certain conditions (such as reflux) may interfere with sleep. It’s a good idea to discuss any concerns you have about your child’s sleep with your pediatrician.
The Importance of Naps
Naps are essential for babies and toddlers! So much so that we wrote an entire article about them.
To learn more about sleep, take a look at our articles on instilling good sleep habits from birth, sleep training, night terrors, and fear of the dark.