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What Sleep Is and Why All Kids Need It

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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Why Do I Need Sleep?

Sleep is more important than you may think. The average kid has a busy day. There's school, taking care of your pets, running around with friends, going to sports practice or other activities, and doing your homework. By the end of the day, your body needs a break. Sleep lets your body get rest for the next day.

Everything that's alive needs sleep to survive. Even your dog or cat curls up for naps. Animals sleep for the same reason you do — to give your body a tiny vacation.

Your Brain Needs Zzzzzs

Your body and your brain need sleep. During sleep, the brain sorts through and stores information, replaces chemicals, and even solves problems while you snooze.

Most kids don’t get enough sleep. Kids 5 to 12 years old need 9 to 12 hours each night. Not every kid is the same and some kids need more sleep than others.

Can you think of a time when you didn't get enough sleep? That heavy, groggy feeling is awful and, when you feel that way, you're not at your best. Without enough sleep, kids can feel moody, tired, or cranky. It might be hard to pay attention or follow directions. School work that's normally easy may feel impossible, or you may feel clumsy playing your favorite sport or instrument.

One more reason to get enough sleep: If you don't, you may not grow as well. That's right, too little sleep can affect growth and your germ-fighting immune system, which keeps you from getting sick.

The Stages of Sleep

As you're drifting off to sleep, it doesn't seem like much is happening . . . the room is getting fuzzy and your eyelids feel heavier and heavier. But what happens next? A lot!

Your brain swings into action, moving between two types of sleep – REM and non-REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement. Together, REM sleep and the 3 stages of non-REM sleep make up a sleep cycle. The time spent in REM sleep decreases and sleep cycles get longer as kids get older. By the time a kid goes to school, one complete sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes.

Stage 1 and stage 2 non-REM sleep are light sleep stages:

  • A person can wake up easily.
  • Eye movements slow down, heart and breathing rates slow down, and body temperature decreases.

Stage 3 non-REM sleep is deep sleep:

  • It's harder to wake someone up during this stage. When awakened, a person often will feel groggy and confused.
  • Sleepwalking can happen during this stage.
  • This is the most refreshing sleep stage. It’s during this stage that the body releases hormones needed for growth.

The last stage of the sleep cycle is called REM sleep because of the fast eye movements that happen:

  • Your eyes move quickly under the eyelids, you breathe faster, and your heart beats quicker. You can’t move your arms or legs during REM sleep.
  • This is the stage of sleep when we have our most vivid dreams.

REM sleep is important for learning and memory. 

How Can I Sleep Better?

For most kids, sleeping comes pretty naturally. Here are some tips to help you catch all the ZZZs you need:

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps your body get into a routine.
  • Turn off the TV, computer, and other devices, including cellphones, at least 1 hour before it’s time to sleep.
  • Follow a bedtime routine that is calming, such as taking a warm bath or reading.
  • Don’t have drinks with caffeine in them, especially in the late afternoon and evening. Coffee, tea, energy drinks, and some sodas have caffeine.
  • Don't watch scary TV shows or movies close to bedtime because these can sometimes make it hard to fall asleep.
  • Don't exercise just before going to bed. Do exercise earlier in the day — it helps a person sleep better.
  • Use your bed just for sleeping — not doing homework, reading, playing games, or talking on the phone. That way, you'll train your body to connect your bed with sleep.

If you have a hard time falling asleep for more than one or two nights or have worries that are keeping you from sleeping, tell your mom or dad. They can help you solve your sleep problems. In fact, just talking about it with them could help you relax just enough (yawn) that you'll be ready to sleep.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2020