top of page

Could your child have low sleep needs? Here's how to find out


We all understand that sleep is important for the growth and development of babies and toddlers. Getting adequate sleep is an important component of learning, memory consolidation, development of motor skills and emotion regulation to name a few. Most babies and toddlers will follow a predictable sleep trajectory (see our sleep chart for averages), but some babies and toddlers never quite achieve textbook-perfect sleep amounts no matter what their parents do. It makes sense that this leads many parents to worry that their child's short sleep could negatively impact their growth and development. So, how do you know if your child really needs less sleep than other children? This blog will walk you through the steps to find out.


The Science

In 2016, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) published a consensus statement that described ranges of sleep needs for babies and toddlers. The authors reviewed 864 scientific articles that described negative consequences associated with sleep loss by age. Based on this review, they developed low and high sleep duration thresholds for different phases of a child's development. Sleeping less than the recommended range means that we might expect a negative impact on a child due to sleep deficiency. Importantly, the recommendation states that children should meet these sleep recommendations "on a regular basis." That means that having one day of short sleep is not likely to be consequential. You have to consider your child's average sleep when comparing against these ranges.


  • Infants (4-12 months): 12-16 hours per day including naps

  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours per day including naps

  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours per day including naps


The AASM paper was later endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, meaning that the two largest pediatrics sleep medical academies agree on these ranges.


Importantly, simply knowing the range of recommended sleep amounts isn't quite enough. For example, a 9-month-old who only sleeps 12 hours in a 24-hour period might only need 12 hours of sleep (and therefore be a "short sleeper") or that baby might need 13 or 14 hours of sleep and be chronically sleep deprived.


How Can You Tell How Much Sleep Your Child Needs?

  1. Compare your child's sleep against the AASM minimum recommendations: If your child consistently falls short, that probably means that you need to work to increase your child's sleep duration. This might be through helping your child sleep or by doing something like sleep training to teach your child to sleep without your help.

  2. Assess your child's day-night sleep balance: Recognize that some children may need more daytime sleep (naps) while others require longer nighttime sleep and vice versa. For example, if your child never sleeps more than 30 minutes for naps but has a longer than normal night, that is not likely to be a problem. If you would prefer your child's sleep to be more "typical," you can rebalance your child's schedule by waking your child from long naps or shortening an extra long night. That should lengthen the other type of sleep.

  3. Identify "sleep thieves": Evaluate your daily schedule to pinpoint activities or events that disrupt your child's sleep. For example, if you always have to wake your baby from a nap for an older sibling's school pickup, that could be a source of your child's short sleep. If you can, consider modifying your child's schedule by choosing activities that don't interfere with sleep. If you have no control over external activities, you may need to adjust your child's schedule.

  4. Resolve sleep associations: If your child isn't able to go to sleep without help (e.g., rocking, pacifier, feeding, etc.), it can sometimes lead to insufficient sleep. For example, if a six-month-old baby is rocked to sleep and transferred to the crib but wakes 30 minutes later, sleep associations might be responsible for the short sleep. Similarly, if a toddler will only nap in a stroller, it might not be possible to take a long enough walk each day to ensure a long enough nap. To solve these issues, check out our sleep training 101 blog, take our class, or consider booking a consultation with us to make a plan to help your child sleep more.

  5. Genetics: Do you or other family members seem to need less sleep than others? There are genetic factors (polymorphisms) that are associated with short sleep needs. If your child's relatives don't seem to need as much sleep, it's possible your child doesn't either (note that not all relatives need to have short sleep).

  6. Assessing Mood and Demeanor: Observe your child's behavior and mood. If your child seems content, engaged, and not overly tired between sleep episodes, your child is probably getting enough sleep.

Your child doesn't need to meet all of the criteria on this list to be considered low sleep needs. If your child is wide awake at bedtime, wakes too early, or is awake for hours in the middle of the night, these are also signs that your child may have low sleep needs.


What should you do if your child has low sleep needs?

It's ok to shorten your child's sleep opportunity to better match the amount of time your child is capable of sleeping. For example, if you determine that your toddler only needs 10 hours of sleep overnight, pick bed and wake times that allow your toddler about 10 hours of nightly sleep opportunity. This should reduce the amount of time that your child spends in bed not sleeping (or getting out of bed!). Similarly, if you determine that your baby only needs 2.5 hours of sleep during the day, you may need to space your baby's awake time out a bit more than average (short sleepers often need longer wake times). This might take a little trial and error but the best way to optimize nap timing for a short sleeper is to space naps equally throughout the day. If your baby seems to need shorter awake times at some points and longer awake times at other points, adjust your baby's schedule going forward.


Also, please remember, sleep is important but so is your mental health and well-being. If you think your child has low sleep needs, please do not stress and compare your child to everyone else. As everyone always says, every child is unique, and it's ok to accept that your child just doesn't sleep as much as others. Some families find it helpful to talk through these points. We are happy to do so in a one-on-one consultation if you aren't confident in your self-assessment.


References

Paruthi, S., Brooks, L.J., D'Ambrosio, C., Hall, W.A., Kotagal, S., Lloyd, R.M., Malow, B.A., Maski, K., Nichols, C., Quan, S.F. and Rosen, C.L., 2016. Pediatric sleep duration consensus statement: a step forward. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 12(12), pp.1705-1706.



Fisher, A., van Jaarsveld, C.H., Llewellyn, C.H. and Wardle, J., 2012. Genetic and environmental influences on infant sleep. Pediatrics, 129(6), pp.1091-1096.


Touchette, E., Dionne, G., Forget-Dubois, N., Petit, D., Pérusse, D., Falissard, B., Tremblay, R.E., Boivin, M. and Montplaisir, J.Y., 2013. Genetic and environmental influences on daytime and nighttime sleep duration in early childhood. Pediatrics, 131(6), pp.e1874-e1880.


Kocevska, D., Trajanoska, K., Mulder, R.H., Koopman‐Verhoeff, M.E., Luik, A.I., Tiemeier, H. and van Someren, E.J., 2023. Are some children genetically predisposed to poor sleep? A polygenic risk study in the general population. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


Comments


bottom of page