As a family doctor, I often hear patients talk about insomnia, or difficulty sleeping. Sleep is an essential and precious commodity that unfortunately does not come easily to everyone. This critical component of our health often gets overlooked by the public and by health care providers. Primary care providers often address problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, and various conditions, such as sleep apnea.

Every person at every age needs sleep, but the amount and type of sleep varies. From infancy through the teenage years, individuals need a lot of sleep. Children spend about 40 percent of their childhood sleeping. Their young and rapidly developing brains require more sleep. During sleep, their brain cells rummage through the information learned and gathered that day, filing it into areas that help with communication and memory. Children and teens particularly need the active type of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep, which is linked to re-processing information and dreaming. As we age, we need less sleep. Most adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. The elderly may only need 5 to 6 hours.

Children also get physical health benefits from sleep. The latest medical research suggests that children who sleep less than the recommended amount are at a higher risk of gaining weight and developing diabetes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Sleep Foundation. Sleep also allows muscles and organs to get nourishment and blood flow for healing and growth. Sleep is when children’s bodies pay the most attention to growing tall. These guidelines may reassure parents who worry about the amount of sleep their children get:

  • Newborns, from birth to 3 months: 10.5 to 18 hours in 2 to 3-hour segments.
  • Infants, ages 4-11 months: 9 to 12 hours, including several short naps.
  • Toddlers, ages 1-2 years: 11 to 14 hours, including one long nap.
  • Preschoolers, ages 3-5: 11 to 13 hours, without naps.
  • School-aged children, 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours.

Difficulty sleeping is rare in childhood and may suggest an underlying problem. If your child or grandchild is not sleeping enough, a few issues might be at play. It’s very important to make sure a primary care provider sees the child and evaluates possible causes. Reasons children struggle with sleep include physical illness, mental stress at home, nightmares, sleepwalking, or even disruption of normal routines during vacation. During school holidays, children may not go to bed and wake up at the usual times. Keeping children on a regular sleep routine throughout the year helps establish good sleep habits.

If you’re concerned about your child’s sleep habits, make an appointment to see your health care provider. That way we can all rest a little easier.

Dr. J. Abi Ashcraft, a resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3306.