Children and sleep

How it works and how much should children sleep
Reading time: 4 minutes


Sleep really is a serious matter! This is true for everyone, from newborn babies to older adults. It is not simply a question of shutting our eyes and waiting to wake up again: lots of things happen in the time spanning these two moments, albeit without our knowledge. What happens is so important that Nature has decided to gift newborn babies with seemingly endless hours of sleep, and if Nature has decided thus, there must be some very good reasons. Let's try to understand a bit better.

How many hours do babies sleep?

Something that every new parent-to-be wonders is: "Will our baby let us sleep?". It is a fair question, but it begs some reflection. When they are first born, babies have a circadian rhythm (a physiological rhythm that includes, among other things, the sleep-wake cycle) that is completely different to that of adults; adults have had time to develop their own steady rhythm which usually coincides with sleeping at night and staying awake during the day. In their mother’s womb, babies are used to having their own individual sleeping pattern, so when they come into the world they then have to adapt to alternating phases of day and night and it takes time for them to become accustomed to this change. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that newborn infants naturally have polyphasic sleep, which means that they have multiple intervals of sleep and wakefulness, generally speaking in the first month they have shorter naps which are closer together, with feeds, nappy changes and interaction with adults in between sleeps. Babies may even wake two or three times through the night and have another three naps during the day. A newborn thus spends a lot of hours sleeping, consider that in the space of 24 hours they can sleep for 16 and this can remain more or less unchanged until they are around six months old. Naturally, every child is unique, they have their own temperament and characteristics, so some children can sleep a great deal, while others spend considerably less time sleeping. From around three months of age, sleep-wake phases start becoming more regular and usually by six months, around the time of weaning, children start developing night and day sleep patterns: generally they have three naps, one mid-morning, one after lunch and another in the late afternoon. The morning and late afternoon naps are usually the first ones the child outgrows, while many babies continue to have a postprandial nap until age three/four, when they start nursery school. In their second year, children generally sleep around 12/13 hours in total but as they continue growing, this period of time gradually decreases, also because social, growth and developmental stimuli demand increasing amounts of attention and active participation in daily life.

How is children's sleep characterised?

Children’s sleep is similar in structure to that of adults, but qualitatively speaking it is different: in infants and older children alike it is characterised by continuous sleep cycles, with each one consisting of two phases: REM (lighter sleep in some ways, with dreaming possible) and Non-REM (deeper sleep). In children, each sleep cycle lasts around 45 minutes, as opposed to 90 minutes in adults, with micro awakenings at the end of each cycle. As adults, we may not even notice these, while for children they can represent an actual "waking up” as a result of which they may feel the need to interact with an adult caregiver before they can complete their sleep "quota". That is why infants wake up more frequently through the night and feel the need to have a trusted adult nearby to reassure them and help lull them back to sleep. Another important aspect derives from the fact that the bulk of children’s sleep (unlike that of adults) is made up of REM sleep. As we pointed out above, this is the lightest kind of sleep and is essential in nature because, given that your child is not yet independent, if they need something (they are hot, thirsty, hungry or in discomfort) in this sleep phase it is easier for them to wake up and attract your attention for help: this represents a primitive alarm signal, driven by our natural instinct for survival and self preservation.

Another reason why children sleep a lot is that a great many processes take place during sleep: the brain continues to develop, as does the immune system; energy levels are replenished in preparation for a new day; knowledge and skills learned during the day are consolidated and memorised; stimuli deemed superfluous or redundant for growth are eliminated, and the body and mind rest and recover from the challenges of a busy day (for example, if children have been poorly, they may sleep longer in order to recover and re-establish a state of wellbeing).

How can we help children to sleep better?

  • The most important thing of all is to respect your child’s times. There is no need to wake children from their sleep, especially if they are very young; if sleeping, they evidently need their rest, for all the reasons outlined above.
  • The importance of a routine is irrefutable: in the first few months, babies can often fall asleep at the breast, which provides them with milk, of course, but also comfort, warmth and tranquillity, and all these aspects are conducive to sleep. When this moment is no longer present, for a whole series of reasons or family situations or because the baby is no longer being breastfed, it is important to establish a bedtime routine: this involves a series of actions carried out together to prepare the child for going to sleep, which can range from singing a lullaby or a nursery rhyme (best if it is one already sang to the baby while they were still in the womb), to giving the baby a bath, massage, cuddles or calming caresses, reading them a bedtime story, giving them their favourite soft toy or an old pyjama top of their mother or father’s to cuddle. Every child-caregiver couple has their own routine and no single routine is better than another, the important thing is that it is always the same, as this not only gives your child certainty, allowing them to drift off to a restful slumber, but in general it is also one of the cosiest, most intimate moments of the day.
  • Never allow tablets or smartphones with videos or games before bedtime, as a child’s brains would register that it is time to be active and not to relax
  • A soothing, calming environment is essential before bedtime, ideally with dimmed lighting. Speak in a calm, quiet voice, if you want music on keep the volume low, and choose classical or in any case relaxing sounds. Before drifting off, children need to feel safe and relaxed, so the external environment should favour and reflect these sensations.
  • Try to establish a regular routine not just for your child's bedtime, but also for their mealtimes, playtime, and walks in the pushchair, as this will help regularise their circadian rhythm.
  • If possible, your child should drift off to sleep where they will spend the rest of the night (this is mostly possible from four/five months of age) because in this way, during micro awakenings, they will find themselves in the same place where they had first fallen asleep and not somewhere else entirely, thus avoiding any disorientation or confusion while they drift back to sleep.
  • During night-time micro awakenings, if your child is not hungry or in need of comfort or reassurance, sometimes the sound of your voice, a few lines of a lullaby or some physical contact with you is enough for them to feel comforted and soothed.
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