Under 2's

How Much Sleep Do Children Need in the Early Years?

  • How Much Sleep Do Children Need in the Early Years?

Young children’s naps influence both their physical and emotional wellbeing, so it’s important to give them due consideration, says Sarah Ockwell-Smith…

Daytime naps play an important role in the biological and psychological development of children, and are common until well into the third year. Scientists in America recently found that taking naps has a significant impact on the cognitive capabilities of toddlers. In their study the researchers looked at the effect a lunchtime nap had upon the children’s ability to remember the position of pictures on a grid, after playing a memory game that morning. They found that the toddlers who had taken a nap had a better recall of the pictures than those who had not. In addition, the toddlers’ memories were also better the following morning, which, the scientists suggested, indicated that the benefits of taking a nap in the daytime are not made up for by night-time sleep. As the study’s lead researcher, Laura Kurdziel, put it, “It seems that there is an additional benefit of having the sleep occur in close proximity to the learning. Children should not only be given the opportunity, they should be encouraged to sleep by creating an environment which supports sleep.”

In fact, biologically speaking, scientists suggest that we should all take an afternoon nap, however old we are. Researching the beneficial effects of napping, scientists at the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre have found that taking an afternoon nap is more effective than drinking caffeine or sleeping in for an extra hour and a half in the morning when it comes to feelings of alertness. Daytime naps could, we’re told, even help prevent heart disease.

The environment

Research on twin sleep behaviour theorises that night-time sleep has a 50% genetic basis – that is, the saying a ‘born sleeper’ may have some truth to it. Nap-times, however, seem to be greatly influenced by environmental factors. The impact of the environment rises as the child ages, peaking at around the age of two, where scientists indicate that the environment is responsible for as much as a 79% influence on the length of the nap. A baby, however, is far more driven by basic biology when it comes to their sleep patterns.

Many nurseries can be brightly lit, busy and stimulating environments, and this may have an impact on naps. What happens at nursery can also have a potential effect on the natural nap-times of children and their circadian rhythms (what we commonly refer to as body clocks). Perhaps more important when it comes to the impact of daycare on nap times, though, is the knock-on effect it can have on night-time sleep. This is largely due to the elevated cortisol levels experienced by children at nursery, which can result in disordered circadian rhythms. A large analysis of nine studies looking at the cortisol levels of young children at nursery was published in 2006. The analysis found those in daycare had higher cortisol levels than children looked after in a home setting. Not only was the level higher for children in daycare, their levels also rose over the course of the day and were higher in the afternoon, an effect that was not seen in those children at home. This was most noticeable in under-threes; I do wonder if the children’s cortisol levels were elevated at nursery because of a lack, or reduction, of nap-times disrupting their circadian rhythms. With this in mind, how can you help the nap times of children in your care?

1. Naps in slings. Research found that babies carried for one hour more per day cried 43% less than those who were carried for one hour less per day, during the daytime. From a baby’s point of view being carried often makes them feel safe and secure. Using a good carrier can provide much needed nap-time relief for sensitive babies. Another added benefit of carrying babies during naps is it gives a practitioner the ability to carry on playing with, and taking care of, other children.

Scientists from the Infant Sleep Information Source (ISIS) suggest taking naps in slings can also help to keep babies safe and at less of a risk of Sudden Infant Death (SIDS). “An English study, comparing 325 SIDS babies with 1,300 control babies,” they say, “found that 75% of the day-time SIDS deaths occurred while babies were alone in a room. Using a sling or baby carrier may make it easier…to keep your baby close during the day.”

If you want to try using slings and carriers for daytime naps, see babywearing.co.uk for more information, including important safety advice. Don’t be tempted to use carriers commonly found on the high street, though, which tend to not provide optimal support or comfort for both baby and wearer. Good brands to look out for are Beco, Boba, Close, Ergo, Manduca and Moby. Many of which can be used well into the toddler years too.

2. Check the lighting. Normal light bulbs, particularly energy saving options, can inhibit melatonin, the hormone of sleep, with their blue light wave spectrum. Choosing to have no artificial lighting at all is the best way to ensure easier nap-times, but if you do want to use lighting, try a red light bulb or night light in the allocated sleep room.

3. Consider naps outside. In many countries, particularly Scandinavia, taking naps outside is the norm for babies and toddlers. It’s very common to see rows of prams with sleeping babies lined up outside Swedish nurseries. Research from Finland in 2008 found that “Babies clearly slept longer outdoors than indoors, while indoor naps lasted between one and two hours, outdoor naps lasted from 1.5 to three hours.” Providing the children are warm enough, al fresco naps can really help to soothe a child to sleep.

4. Use calming scent. Research has shown time and again that lavender essential oil has a calming and soothing effect that aids sleep. Using the oil in a battery-operated aromatherapy fan in the sleep room can have a very beneficial effect.

5. Use relaxing music. For young babies consider the use of white noise, such as a radio tuned off station. For older babies and toddlers try using an ‘alpha music’ CD, such as the ToddlerCalm Relaxation CD (see toddlercalm.co.uk). Alpha music is specially composed to encourage sleepy brainwaves, which aids children in getting to sleep and helps them to sleep for longer.

6. Use comfort objects. Check if the child has a special comfort object they use at home, or consider asking parents to bring in their sleeping bag or blanket. The scents and feel of familiar objects can help children to feel reassured and reminded of home, leaving them more able to sleep easily.

7. Follow natural rhythms. Try to follow the natural rhythms of the children in your care wherever possible. A baby or toddler napping to their own circadian rhythms will always be much happier and sleep better than those who have a sleeping schedule artificially enforced.

How much is enough?

Work out if your children are properly rested…

Research published earlier this year provided us, for the first time ever, with accurate norms for child sleep needs and expectations. Until this research, the tables highlighting how much sleep a child should have at each age were based on nothing other than educated guesswork. Alarmingly, this includes the statistics you see in NHS publications too. The main findings of this research relevant to those children who attend nursery are summarised below:

Age 4 to 6 months / 14 hrs each day / 3 hours napping
Age 7 to 9 months / 13.6 hrs each day / 2.7 hours napping
Age 10 to 12 months / 13.4 hrs each day / 2.5 hours napping
Age 13 to 15 months / 13.4 hrs each day / 2.4 hours napping
Age 24 months / 11.9 hrs each day / 1 hour napping
Age 36 months / 11.7 hrs each day / 0.8 hour napping

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert and author, and the founder of Gentle Parenting.