Why have kids’ sleep recommendations changed over the years?

There’s a general consensus among the medical community that many young people aren’t getting enough sleep these days. And with high tech distractions like TV, video games and the Internet competing for their late night attention, it’s no wonder that today’s children aren’t getting as much rest as they should.

But is there really such a thing as the perfect amount of sleep for young people? And is this current lack of sleep really a new problem, the byproduct of our kids’ fascination with Xbox, Facebook and the like? According to a new study in the journal Pediatrics, the answer is no on all accounts.

Researchers recently studied pediatric sleep recommendations of the past 100 years and found that the suggested amount of sleep for children has changed over the years, and at any given time most children failed to get as much sleep as what was recommended by doctors.

Sanjeev Kothare, MD

In fact, the only constant finding the researchers saw in the century worth of data they reviewed was that no matter the year, the bustle of modern life was blamed for children’s poor sleep habits. In the early 1900s trolley cars and electric lamps were scapegoated, in the 50s it was TV’s fault and today videogames and social network websites are cited as the reason children don’t get enough sleep.

“We understand that there is a reduction in the total time children are spending asleep, and in many cases societal distractions play a role in that,” says Sanjeev Kothare, MD, interim medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. “But saying exactly how much sleep a child needs at a particular age is actually an arbitrary concept, regardless of the year.”

For young, developing brains, there really is no such thing as a universal number of hours of needed sleep.

So why have pediatric sleep recommendations changed over time and why is coming up with a consistent recommendation so difficult? The main problem is every child’s sleep requirements are different, based on far too many factors to be neatly summed up with a universal suggestion. Variables like the child’s age, gender, growth pattern and stage of mental development all affect his individual sleep needs. And because those factors vary so much from child to child, even within the same age group, creating an accurate pediatric sleep recommendation specific for age is near impossible.

“There’s data to show that in the first years of life, the variations of how much sleep is needed is much more dramatic than it is for young children, adolescents or adults,” Kothare says. “For instance most adults need around eight and half hours of sleep a night, but for a newborn, that number can vary from nine to 19 hours. For young, developing brains, there really is no such thing as a universal number of hours of needed sleep.”

Rather than worry so much about recommendations that may or may not apply to their family, Kothare suggests parents focus on their child’s individual needs. Does your child wake up refreshed? Is he napping for hours in the middle of the day? If so there’s a good chance he needs more sleep at night. To help ensure that your child gets enough sleep at night Kothare recommends the following:

  • Set rules for younger children, and offer cues to older ones, based on pre-bed activities that limit screen time and involve relaxing activities in a dimly lit area.
  • Offer positive reinforcement for healthy sleep habits. Use reward systems to encourage good nighttime behaviors that promote healthy sleep.
  • Make sure children of every age keep a fairly consistent bed/wake up time during the weekdays and weekends. Many parents are tempted to let kids catch up on sleep on the weekends but doing so throws off their body’s natural rhythms and can lead to them feeling more tired after waking up on weekdays.
  • Younger children should take age appropriate naps. Of course this will vary for each child, but napping schedules should change with age. A one-year-old may require two naps at day, but only one after her second birthday. Pay attention to your child’s behavior after naps and adjust the length and frequency of those naps accordingly.