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How Sleep Changes over a Lifetime

As you put your little Snoozers down to bed at 7:30pm, have you ever found yourself asking why you don’t just retire for the evening also?  For most of us, hitting the hay after Jimmy Giggle’s nightly sign off is a tad premature and we generally stay up another couple of hours, at least, before heading to bed.  Those extra hours are perfect for some ‘you’ time.

But just how do our sleep requirements change over time and why are those extra hours of sleep so vital for the young?

As we age, our sleep needs generally get less, up until we’re around 20 years old, and then it stabilises.  At different stages of your life, of course, you may find yourself getting less sleep than you need to feel refreshed in the morning (e.g. a new baby in the house, or menopause, or perhaps the aches and pains of ageing), but generally from young adulthood to older adults, the range of sleeping hours we require is quite consistent.

A study from the National Sleep Foundation has plotted the minimum and maximum range and a recommended section for optimal health from newborns to older adult (65+).

infographic sleep changes

 Let’s take a closer look at those stages.

Sleeping like a baby

There’s a reason for that expression, even though it may not seem like it if you’re trying to settle an irritable bub. Babies do need a lot of sleep. For the first 3 months they need between 14-17 hours (over 24 hours) and then this drops to 12-15 hours for infants between 4-11 months. This somewhat huge amount of sleep is needed in order to support their rapid mental and physical development.

Toddling into Preschool ages

A toddler needs about 12-13 hours of sleep every 24 hours.  That could be 10-12 hours at night, and 1-2 hours during the day.  Unlike newborns and infants, most toddlers sleep through the night, but getting them to bed in the first place can sometimes be tricky, especially if we’re talking about someone who likes to test their independence (pretty much all toddlers!)  At the pre-schooler age (3-5) the daytime nap may drop off once they’re getting enough sleep at night, but as a guideline, they need 10-13 hours of sleep every 24 hours.

Off to school

By the time they start school, sleep needs change again.  A recommended 9-11 hours of sleep a night is required for this next stage in life.  Good quality sleep helps a child concentrate, remember things and hopefully helps with any behavioural issues - all contributing to being a successful learner.  Just think about all that information they’re processing!

The teen years

Sleep needs remain just as vital to health and well-being for teenagers.  In fact, it’s possible that some teens may actually need more sleep than in previous years, but in general, research suggests that a teenager needs between 8-10 hours of sleep every night.  Warning: this is the age that instead of being woken by your child in the morning, you’re the one doing the waking. It seems as if they are sleeping like there’s no tomorrow...and in fact in some cases, tomorrow has disappeared by the time they surface!  It could be the late nights staying up with eyes glued to a screen based device, or the hormonal time shift (puberty hormones shift the teenagers body clock, making them sleepier 1-2 hours later at night) or the social engagements….but these late nights can be an issue with sleep deprivation if you and your teenager can’t come up with ways of increasing their sleep quota. Weekend sleep-ins are definitely an option!

Sleep in teen years

Young adults

As we move from teen years to young adulthood, there is a significant change to sleep patterns mainly in regards to our sleep cycles and the amount of time spent in each phase.  The result is, we may not sleep as well, or we may feel less rested in the morning. It’s at this age that the amount of sleep we need stabilises at 7-9 hours of sleep a night and remains at this amount right through to older age.  Unfortunately, it’s common for young adults to average only 6 hours sleep a night.

young adult sitting on bed


Despite the fact most adults need between 7-9 hours to feel refreshed and function at their best, there may be times throughout your adult years where you struggle to get this amount of sleep; investing in proper bedding is recommended.  Someone with a baby on the way for example, needs to prepare themselves for disruption to their standard sleeping hours, particularly in those early months when a baby doesn’t know night from day and needs to feed….a lot!  Napping during the day may help over this time as broken sleep is better than none at all.

woman holding a baby

Menopause can also mess with your sleep, as hot flushes, night sweats and even sleep apnoea are common troubles.  The good news is that once you’re through menopause, sleep will likely improve.

As we head into later life (ages 65+), there is a misconception that we need less sleep.  While it’s true that as we age, our sleep can become less efficient and we may need to spend more time in bed, generally the recommended hours of sleep remains the same (between 7-8 hours).

One thing is clear - at every life stage, sleep plays an important role in our physical and mental health.  Sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels, and in young people supports healthy growth and development. Getting enough sleep decreases the risk of becoming overweight, and helps maintain a healthy balance of hormones.  It could also reduce injury risk and impulsiveness, increase attention span and boost learning. While being careful not to obsess over the amount of sleep we’re getting, it’s a good idea to keep these guidelines in mind and try and make up for those lost hours that occur along the way.  Happy snoozing!



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