Centre for Community Child Health

Sleep – essential for life and learning

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    sleeping boy essential

    We spend around a third of our lives asleep; it’s a time when our bodies do lots of growing, repairing and restoring. The early years of life are a peak period for growth and development, and quality sleep is essential.

    Supporting kids to get the amount of sleep and the sort of quality sleep they need can help them to be healthier and happier.  

    You may not be in the homes of the children you teach at bedtime, but you do see the results when children do not get the sleep they need. Educators can help children and their families to learn about the importance of sleep and to put in place some simple steps to support good quality sleep.

    Sleep follows standard patterns

    We all cycle between deep sleep and light sleep during the night.

    In deep sleep, essential hormones for growth and development are released and the blood supply to our muscles increases. It is very hard to wake someone when they’re in this cycle. In light sleep, our breathing and heart rate are irregular and our body is still. This is also the time when we dream.

    Also in this edition of Grow & Thrive:

    Helping young children to get quality sleep: early childhood educators

    Sleep and the early years of school: early primary teachers

    Helping your child to get the sleep they need: parents

    Sign up to the Grow & Thrive newsletter

    The amount of deep sleep and light sleep we need changes with age. Full-term newborns will spend about half of their time in light sleep. By the time children are three, that is reduced to around a third; and by the time they are 13 it’s about 20 per cent.

    The length of time spent in each sleep cycle also changes over time. For babies, each cycle will last between 30 and 50 minutes, and these cycles get longer as we get older. In adulthood and adolescence, the cycles last about 90 minutes. 

    Getting good quality sleep

    Lots of different things can make sleep difficult: children can feel anxiety and worry, or they might only fall asleep with a particular person nearby, or with the television on.

    Establishing a good bedtime routine and sleep habits is known as sleep hygiene. For children to get the quality sleep they need for learning and development, encourage parents to:

    • set up a good bedtime routine with a consistent bedtime and a regular wake time
    • keep the child’s bedroom media free, that means no TV, portable DVD player or other handheld gaming or smartphone device
    • avoid caffeinated drinks for children. If children do drink caffeinated drinks (that includes cola and Milo-type drinks), avoid them after 3pm.

    How much sleep do kids need?

    At different ages, we need different amounts of sleep. Take a look at the graph on this page. You might be surprised by how much sleep the average child needs for healthy development.

    A bad night’s sleep can happen for lots of reasons. When children consistently get poor quality sleep, or less sleep than they need, it can have a serious effect on their ability to get the most out of each day in terms of play and learning.

    Sleep duration graph

    Also in this edition of Grow & Thrive:

    Helping young children to get quality sleep: early childhood educators

    Sleep and the early years of school: early primary teachers

    Helping your child to get the sleep they need: parents

    Sign up to the Grow & Thrive newsletter

    Reference: Quach J, Hiscock H, Ukoumunne OC, Wake M. A brief sleep intervention improves outcomes in the school entry year: A randomised controlled trial. Pediatrics published online 19 September 2011.