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The Ideal Sleep Schedule: One Pattern Doesn't Fit All
If you're a parent who thinks that dragging your teenager out of bed at 8:30 on a Saturday morning is good for them, think again. Research shows that our biological clock shifts throughout life, resulting in different sleep patterns at different stages of life. Due to forces beyond their control, teenagers aren't usually ready for bed until the wee hours of the morning, which means they need to sleep in the next day to get the rest they need.
It turns out babies, teenagers, adults and older adults each have their own ideal sleep schedule, not all of which fit the clock the world runs by. Below, Sonia Ancoli-Israel, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, discusses how our sleep patterns evolve over time, and what you can do to sleep better.
What is the common sleep pattern for infants?Infants have a sleep pattern that's very unique to them and the stages of sleep are different than what we see in adults. They need to sleep about 10 to 12 hours throughout the 24 hours. Most infants nap around four or five times throughout the day, and their sleep is disrupted at night because they need to get up, primarily to eat.
As they grow into little boys and girls, the sleep pattern changes. The number of naps will decrease throughout those early years. By around age 3, children will be taking maybe only two naps. By age 5, they've stopped their napping. But they still need about 10 hours of sleep at night.
What is the natural sleeping pattern for teenagers?Adolescents still need about 10 hours of sleep at night. I don't know too many teenagers who get that amount of sleep, but that's what they need to feel refreshed and to be able to really function and be alert throughout the day.
The other thing that happens to adolescents is that the timing of their sleep changes. Their circadian rhythms, or the biological clock, shifts. While most children go to bed around 9 pm at night, teenagers don't get sleepy until maybe 1 to 2 in the morning. They still need their 10 or 11 hours of sleep, which now means they're not going to wake up until maybe 10 or 11 in the morning.
Most parents think, "My child is being lazy." But in fact, it's a very normal pattern for adolescents to experience. We call this a delayed sleep phase because their whole pattern is delayed when compared to the clock we live by.
This sleep pattern can be a real problem for adolescents in terms of getting to school on time or even being alert enough for early morning classes because their bodies and brains aren't quite awake yet. There is actually a movement around the world to start high schools a little later in the morning, specifically because of this problem.
What does the sleep pattern look like in most adults?As adolescents continue to grow into adulthood, the pattern shifts back, so that most adults get sleepy around 11 pm. They'll sleep about 8 hours because now we need less sleep as we get into adulthood, which means that they're waking up around 6 or 7 in the morning.
There are individual differences in how much sleep adults need, and people need to figure that out for themselves. The way you do that is by finding out how much sleep it takes for you to feel fully alert during the day. And what fully alert means is that you're able to stay awake until it's time to go to bed at night.
Do we need less sleep as we get older?There is this myth that as we get older, we need less sleep. The truth is that our ability to sleep changes as we get older, but the need for sleep probably doesn't. As we get older, the amount of deep sleep that we have decreases. It actually starts decreasing at around age 20. As we get older, our sleep architecture changes. We begin losing some of our deep sleep and the less deep sleep you have, the more time you'll spend in lighter stages of sleep. If you're spending more time in lighter stages, that means that you're more likely to react to noises or things in the environment that will wake you up.
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