How Sleep Changes As We Age

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woman in bed

What do a plump infant, an Olympic swimmer, and a wise and wrinkled professor have in common? They all need sleep. Sleeping for a good chunk of the day is a universal human experience, and your health demands it regardless of age. But how does sleep change as we age?

While we all need hours of sleep every night, our sleep needs structural changes and matures as we put more years behind us. Newborns often sleep the day and night away, but adults entering middle age and later life may find it harder to get enough zzzs. Below, we’ll lay out the “whys” and “hows” of sleep patterns by age and give you some tips for your spot on the age spectrum.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.

Long Story Short

  • Sleep needs vary throughout the lifespan, with infants requiring the most sleep. 
  • The quality, structure, and quantity of sleep all undergo significant changes as we age. 
  • As you age, your sleep stages shift from a higher level of deep sleep as a baby to more light sleep as an older adult.
  • At any age, you can sleep better with healthy sleep habits like consistent bedtimes, calming nighttime routines, and keeping your sleeping space a comfy screen-free zone.

Why Sleep Changes As We Age

Early in life, you need much more sleep because your brain and body are developing quickly. (1) (2) This breakneck pace gradually slows from birth to adolescence, and your sleep needs trend downward. (3)

Upon reaching adulthood, the average recommended sleep duration shifts to about 7-9 hours per night, which is connected to less rapid growth and development rather than a sharp decline in sleep need.  (4) Then, as your age progresses, you may face medical conditions, chronic pain, and mental health issues that can disrupt your sleep throughout the night, says Robert Oexman, sleep researcher and chief science officer at iSense

But it’s not all doom and gloom after your 18th birthday! Let’s look at how sleep stages change throughout your lifespan, and then we’ll let you know how to sleep better — no matter your age.

Age and Sleep Stage Variations

Your sleep moves through 4 stages each night: (5)

Every night, adults cycle through these stages about four to six times for 90 minutes each. (5)

Did You Know?

There’s a common misconception that we only dream in REM sleep. It’s a common myth, but we dream in any and all stages of sleep; however, your dreams in REM sleep are likely to be more vivid and memorable than your dreams in other stages of sleep.

Newborns experience sleep in a unique way, with sleep cycles that are simpler and shorter than adults’. Their sleep cycles often consist of fewer stages — primarily dominated by REM sleep — which gradually evolves to include all stages as they age. (5) But after two or three months, infants start to nail down their circadian rhythm (internal clock) and go through all the sleep stages. Still, their sleep cycles are shorter than adults, at about 50 minutes. (5)

As the brain develops through childhood, it needs more REM sleep, says Oexman. Because of hormonal changes through puberty, teenagers spend less time in slow-wave sleep and more time in N2. (5)

But as we age through adulthood into older adulthood, slow wave and REM sleep decrease, and we experience more light stages of NREM sleep. (5) (6)6

Sleep Recommendations and Tips by Age

Sleep supports every aspect of the body’s functions and is crucial for your growth and development through childhood and your health in adulthood. (7) So how much do we need, exactly? Newborns are the odd ones out — their sleep needs can vary enormously, but they sleep about 16 to 18 hours per 24 hours. (7)

After those first few months, though, here’s how much you should sleep every day: (4)

SO Sleep By Age Illustration Social
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-16 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
  • School-age children (6-13): 9-12 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours

Numerical goals are great, but each age group has unique challenges in the sleep department, as well as age-tailored answers to any sleep woes.

Newborns (0-3 months)

Newborns experience sleep in short, irregular intervals throughout the day and night (sorry, parents). Their longest stretches of sleep gradually increase over the first few weeks, often up to about four hours. (5)

Since the womb does not have a sunrise, it’s common for brand-new babies to get their days and nights mixed up. (8) They’ve also gone from a nice, warm, quiet, and cozy environment to a loud, jarring, bright, and cold one. They’ve got some adjusting to pave the way for some good nights of sleep.

Sleep Tips for Newborns

  • Put your baby down drowsy: To get your baby used to falling asleep on their own, lay them in their sleep spot when they seem tired (fussy, rubbing eyes) (9
  • Reorient days and nights: Keep it loud(ish) and bright during the day, and as it nears “bedtime,” turn down the lights and avoid lots of noise. When they wake at night, keep it dark and quiet during feedings and diaper changes. (9)
  • Play during the day: When your baby’s awake, interact with them, do tummy time, read, and go on errands — this will build in a cue that daytime is for activity and nighttime is for sleeping. (10)
  • Try swaddling: Babies live in pretty tight quarters before birth. After birth, many like to be wrapped up tightly in a blanket or swaddled. (11)
  • Keep Sleep Safe: It’s important to always keep your baby safe during sleep: place them on their back to sleep and keep their crib or bassinet clear of stuffed animals, loose blankets, and toys. (12)

Infants (3-12 months)

Infants have much going on. They notice everything around them (like their own hands!), and all those brain activities can make settling down to sleep tricky. (13) (14) Not only is their brain on high alert, but their teeth are pushing through, causing sore gums, drooling, and crankiness. (15)

Babies this age sleep longer at night and less during the day, but infants’ daytime naps are still important for memory: to cement all they’ve learned that day. (5) (16

Speaking of memory, around eight months old, babies have learned who their parents are and often want nothing to do with anyone else — a very common, normal phenomenon called separation anxiety — which can lead to lots of crying when a parent walks away from the crib. (17) Big leaps in body and brain growth can also cause sleep regressions when baby wakes up again after all-night sleeping. (14)

Sleep Tips for Infants

  • Use white noise: When you add some soothing noise to your baby’s room, you can more easily move around the house without waking them, says Oexman.
  • Create a bedtime routine: Whether you bath them, read a story, rock them, give a last bottle, or any combination, a bedtime routine builds internal bedtime cues for your baby. (7)
  • Keep it chill at night: If your baby wakes up for a feeding or diaper change, keep the lights low and speak quietly and soothingly. (9)
  • Give self-soothing a chance: If you rush into the baby’s room every time they make a peep, they can’t learn how to calm themselves down. You can give them a minute or two to recover and try to fall back to sleep before you head in. (10)
  • Know your sleep training options: Some parents like to sleep train their babies and have many methods to choose from. (7) Other parents prefer not to, concerned about the psychological effects of letting their baby self soothe for too long. If you’re unsure how to help your baby sleep, discuss it with your baby’s healthcare provider. Also, it’s worth noting that there are many expert-recommended sleep training methods beyond the cry-it-out method for parents to try, so don’t count yourself out if you know that method isn’t for you and your baby. 

Toddlers (1-2 years)

By one or two years old, many toddlers are sleeping through the night (mostly). At one year old, they typically sleep 14 to 15 hours daily, including their one or two naps, which are still important for memory and overall development. (5) (16)

Even though they sleep better, toddlers also turn up the sass, which can include bedtime resistance. (18) They also may dislike sleeping alone at this age and can go through phases of waking throughout the night for various reasons. (19

Sleep Tips for Toddlers

  • Keep their routine: Toddlers will start pushing bedtime boundaries (hard) but stay strong and keep up with their sleep and wake routines! (9)
  • Give plenty of notice: Don’t spring bedtime on your toddler — give them a five-minute warning for a smoother transition. (9)
  • Maintain their sleep environment: Now’s not the time to make big sleeping arrangement changes. While they may move to a toddler bed during this age, keep all the other room vibes the same: dark and cozy. (7)
  • Cut off naptime early: The later they sleep into the afternoon, the harder it will be for them to sleep at night. (9)
  • Offer a lovey: Kids this age like to have a special blanket or stuffed animal friend to sleep with for extra security and comfort. (9)

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

Preschoolers typically require slightly less sleep than they did during their toddler years, with total daily sleep needs dropping by about two hours. These kiddos are still busy, though — preschool-aged children remain highly active and engaged in learning and play despite needing less sleep.  Older kids can also fight bedtime and still need plenty of boundaries around sleep. 

Experts say better nighttime sleep in preschoolers may lead to higher levels of empathy and directly correlates with teacher-reported behaviors at school or daycare. (20) And, while many preschoolers continue to benefit from naps for memory consolidation and overall well-being, some may be ready to say goodbye to those quick snoozes earlier than others. Just as babies take their first steps in their own time, toddlers do the same with giving up nap time — just like adults, their sleep needs can vary! (16)

Sleep Tips for Preschoolers

  • Focus on routine: Yep, this one again. A consistent nighttime routine will help your preschooler wind down from a fun day of learning and play. (7)
  • Let them decorate: Letting your child choose the curtains or paint color for the walls can help them claim ownership of their room and sleep space, encouraging them to feel comfortable there. (21
  • Leave room for wind-down: Your preschooler may want to wrestle you right up to bedtime, but try to wrap up stimulating activities before lights out. (7)
  • Set boundaries: While it’s okay to ease out of their room bit by bit on a tough night, set and keep firm boundaries around going to bed and staying in bed. If they get up, gently bring them back. (21)
  • Offer rewards: Give your preschooler an incentive to stay in bed for the night, like a visit to the park or an extra story the next day. (21)

School-Age Children (6-12 years)

School-age children are still speeding along on the brain-development train and are cramming in new levels of information at school. Most kids this age have completely given up on naps, but they get plenty of memory-sealing sleep at night. (16) Interestingly, children prefer between being a night owl or an early riser by age six. (5)

Sleep Tips for School-Age Children

  • Prioritize sleep: Try to put sleep above after-school activities like sports and clubs, says Oexman. If school-age kids often have to stay up late or wake up extra early to complete homework, their sleep can take a hit.
  • Keep sleeping spaces screen-free: Oexman encourages school-age children to keep TVs, phones, and gaming systems out of the bedroom.
  • Offer a bedtime snack: A small, healthy bedtime snack can help kids fall asleep, but avoid too much liquid before bed. (7)
  • Encourage their routine: While school-age children may want to stay up later, encourage them to keep a bedtime routine for their best sleep. (7)

Teenagers (13-18 years)

Teenagers typically need between eight and ten hours of sleep — less sleep than school-age children — and may naturally shift to a later bedtime and wake-up time. (22) Because of this shifted preference for later bedtime and wake times, early school start times can make it difficult for teens to get enough sleep regularly. With this in mind, some schools around the U.S. have switched to a later start time to better align with teenagers’ natural sleep cycles . (23

Beyond these biological changes, there’s everything teenagers are dealing with in their day-to-day lives that may impact the rest they’re getting. The demands of heavy homework loads and extracurricular activities, for example, often require teens to compromise on sleep, which can negatively affect their ability to concentrate in class and retain new information. (16) (23

Then there’s teens and their screens. Teens tend to bring their phones to bed, scrolling social media and texting friends. Exposure to blue light from screens and interruptions from text alerts in the evening can disrupt the natural sleep cycle, making it more challenging to fall asleep and maintain restful sleep — particularly for teenagers who may be more inclined to use electronic devices before bedtime.  (23)

Sleep Tips for Teenagers

  • Set bedtime boundaries: Much like school-age children, teens need to have established boundaries around sleep. If it helps, plan out these boundaries with your teen, and consider adopting them yourself. (23)
  • Keep open communication: Talk to your teen about their sleep: how they think it’s going and how they could get even better rest. 
  • Limit screens: We can hear the arguments now… Your teen may resist this boundary initially, and it can help to hear them out and compromise on screen time limits, like keeping screens out of the bedroom versus turning on a “do not disturb” mode. (23
  • Model good sleep hygiene: Teach and model how to get a good night’s sleep. Call a screen-free family hours before bed or encourage them to read a book or take a warm shower to wind down for bedtime. (23)

Adults (18-65 years)

Adults aged 18-65 typically require 7-9 hours of sleep per night, which is a slightly lower range than that for teenagers — and the lowest of any of the age groups, though sleep still remains important. While adults may not develop at the same rate as younger groups, their health still heavily relies on sleep for body and brain upkeep. (24)

Sleep supports all your organs, immune systems, hormones, and metabolism. (24) Over this wide age range, adults are starting careers, becoming parents, waving kids off to college, going through menopause, and staring down retirement. Each phase of adulthood brings different sleep challenges, but fostering good sleep habits can help you get good rest.

Sleep Tips for Adults

  • Keep consistent sleep schedules: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, says Oexman. “If you are using the weekend to catch up on sleep, you are…altering circadian rhythms and changing sleep drive, which can lead to poor sleep quality and quantity.”
  • Get some exercise: Adding physical exertion to your routine, especially outside, can do wonders for your sleep, says Oexman.
  • Wind down before bed: “Start any wind down 30 minutes to one hour before sleep,” says Oexman, “[and] only go to bed when you are sleepy.”
  • Make your bedroom inviting: This isn’t just for the kids! A dark, cool, comfortable sleeping space with soothing white noise can help you sleep better, too. (25)

Older Adults (65 years and over)

Aging brings about unique challenges that can affect sleep quality, such as increased prevalence of medical and mental health conditions, chronic pain, nocturia, and sleep disorders, each contributing to more fragmented sleep and increased time spent in lighter sleep stages. (26) After the age of 65, you spend more time in light sleep, and that sleep is more fragmented. (6

When sleep issues are left to their own devices, older adults can get overtired, experience daytime sleepiness, confusion, and may fall more easily. (6) That can all seem daunting, but while sleep may offer some extra challenges for older adults, there are still plenty of options to improve their slumber.

Sleep Tips for Older Adults

  • Try a snack: Some people find a light snack or a glass of warm milk before bed can help them fall asleep. (26)
  • Avoid caffeine: The caffeine in chocolate, coffee, tea, and some sodas can delay your drifting to dreamland. (26)
  • Keep naps early: If you want to nap during the day, try to cut yourself off in the early afternoon for better nighttime sleep. (27)
  • Try relaxation techniques: Deep breathing or meditation before bed can help you relax before drifting off. (26)
  • Turn off screens: Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom to avoid the temptation to use them before bed, which can delay sleep and confuse your circadian rhythm. (26)
  • Ask about your meds: Some medications are notorious for keeping you up at night. You can ask your healthcare provider about possible adjustments to any sleep-stealing meds on your list. (26)


Why is sleep harder as you age?

“As we age, we have a tendency to have more pain, which can impact our ability to get the quantity and quality of sleep we need,” says Oexman, who adds that medications, mental health issues, frequent urination, and late naps can all make it harder to sleep at night. (28) (26)

Do naps count towards sleep hours?

“Not really,” says Oexman. Infants and toddlers need naps to accommodate a developing brain, Oexman adds, but most children stop napping between two and five years old. (29) Once you’ve switched to night-only sleep, napping during the day can mean less deep sleep and lower-quality snoozing at night. (30) (31)

Why do babies have sleep regressions?

Sleep regressions in babies are commonly attributed to significant milestones in physical and cognitive development, leading to more frequent awakenings at night, even after a pattern of sleeping through the night has been established. (14) (2)

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

No matter your age-specific sleep needs, a calming bedtime routine, regular sleep schedule, and cozy sleep environment are always good ideas. However, you can still use the tips above to help you and your kids optimize your overnight rest and set you up for success all day.


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Abby McCoy

Abby McCoy

Abby McCoy is an RN of 16 years who has worked with adults and pediatric patients encompassing trauma, orthopedics, home care, transplant, and case management. She has practiced nursing all over the world from San Fransisco, CA to Tharaka, Kenya. Abby loves spending time with her husband, four kids, and their cat named Cat.