How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

woman in front of open laptop at office desk and yawning

Sleep is a fundamental human need, a state of rest that rejuvenates us physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s a cornerstone of overall health and well-being, and yet, one question persists: “How much sleep do we need?”

As a sleep expert, I want to delve into this critical inquiry to offer thorough insights into the necessity of sleep, its variability among individuals, age-specific sleep needs, the repercussions of not getting enough sleep, and strategies for enhancing sleep quality.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is paramount for our bodies and minds. During sleep, our bodies labour tirelessly, supporting a healthy brain function and maintaining physical health. It’s a time when our heart and blood vessels undergo healing and repair. For children and teenagers, sleep is pivotal for growth and development.

The role of sleep extends into the domain of our cognitive faculties and emotional health. Lack of sleep can impair our capacity for learning, decision-making, problem-solving, and managing our emotions. Sleep is vital for our physical health, cognitive abilities, and emotional well-being.

The Variability of Sleep Needs

The general recommendation for adults is to aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, and for most adults, this is the amount of sleep we need. However, it is becoming more common that this is not how much sleep we get.

Many adults choose to ‘socially’ short sleep themselves, as they prefer to sacrifice sleep in the evening to relax and enjoy some downtime. If they must rise early for work, they ensure they get the necessary amount of sleep, refusing to compromise on their rest.

At the same time, there is a percentage of adults who need less, or more than the standard 7 to 9 hours. We call them short or long sleepers, and they may get by on as little as 6 hours or as much as 9 to10 hours of sleep.

The reality is that individuals who opt to consistently limit their sleep may not realise the extent of their sleep deprivation. Their state of sleep-related fatigue becomes their new normal,

It’s only when consistently achieving the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep that individuals realise they feel better. Therefore, it’s crucial to heed your body’s signals, evaluate how you feel with different amounts of sleep, and identify the optimal sleep duration for your well-being.

How Many Hours of Sleep Do We Need? 

As we progress through various life stages, our sleep requirements change. Below is a timeline graph and guide illustrating sleep patterns from birth through to adulthood.

Newborns: 

Newborns have a substantial sleep requirement, needing up to an astonishing 17 hours of sleep each day. This is essential for their rapidly developing brains and bodies. 

Infants: 

Infants are slightly older than newborns but still under a year old. They also have high sleep requirements, typically needing around 14 to 15 hours of sleep per day. This includes both nighttime sleep and naps throughout the day. 

Toddlers: 

Defined as children aged one to two years, Toddlers require slightly less sleep than infants, but they still need a considerable amount of rest. On average, toddlers need about 11 to 14 hours of sleep every day, including naps. 

Preschoolers: 

Aged between three and five, preschoolers generally need between 10 to 13 hours of sleep each day. At this age, children might stop taking naps and consolidate their sleep into one long nighttime period. 

School-aged children: 

School-aged children between the ages of six and thirteen need about 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night. This is a crucial time for children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development, and adequate sleep is essential to support these processes. 

Teenagers: 

Fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds typically require about 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. It’s important to note, however, that many teenagers do not get sufficient sleep due to factors like academic demands, social activities, and late-night electronic device use. 

What a lot of people do not realise is that during these years, teenagers undergo a shift in their natural body clock or circadian rhythm. This means that they naturally want to stay awake later and then sleep into lunchtime the next day.

This is a completely normal occurrence, and it is better if they are allowed to do this; unfortunately, teenagers still need to get up early for school, so unless they go to bed at an acceptable time, they will not get the amount of sleep they need. In the future, hopefully, school timings for teenagers may adopt delayed starts to align with their natural sleep and attention rhythms. But on weekends, let them sleep in!

Adults: 

Generally, adults require between seven to eight hours of sleep each night to function optimally. This is the typical range suggested by health experts. 

However, it’s important to note that these figures represent average values; they are not exact requirements for every individual. Sleep needs can significantly vary from person to person. Factors such as age, lifestyle, overall health, and whether an individual has been getting adequate sleep recently can all influence the amount of sleep a person needs. Thus, individual sleep requirements might significantly deviate from these norms. 

The Consequences of Inadequate Sleep 

Not getting enough sleep can have serious and even dire health implications. It significantly increases the risk of developing numerous chronic conditions, such as: 

  • Heart disease 
  • Kidney disease 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Diabetes 
  • Stroke 

These conditions not only threaten longevity but also profoundly affect a person’s quality of life. 

Furthermore, inadequate sleep can also worsen mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, making it even more difficult for individuals to cope with daily stressors and challenges. 

The repercussions of sleep deprivation also extend into our everyday routines and responsibilities, seriously impacting our performance at work or school. Lack of sleep can decrease productivity, concentration, and overall cognitive function, which can lead to problematic or even dangerous situations. 

Additionally, there is a heightened risk of accidents and injuries due to the reduced alertness and response time associated with lack of sleep. Ultimately, sleep deprivation can drastically reduce the quality of life, making it more challenging to enjoy the simple daily pleasures and experiences that life has to offer. 

5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Improving sleep often entails good sleep hygiene, including maintaining a regular sleep schedule, crafting a comfortable sleep environment, avoiding caffeine and heavy meals before bed, and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. 

These strategies can significantly improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.

1. Explore Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I):

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is a highly effective, evidence-based treatment for sleep disorders, particularly insomnia. By working with a sleep specialist trained in CBT-I, you can identify and modify behaviours and thought patterns that contribute to sleep difficulties. CBT-I focuses on strategies such as sleep restriction, stimulus control, and cognitive restructuring to address the underlying causes of insomnia. Incorporating CBT-I into your approach to improving sleep can offer long-term solutions and empower you with techniques to manage and enhance your sleep quality significantly. 

2. Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule:

It is highly beneficial to establish a consistent sleep schedule, which entails going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This routine should be maintained not only during the weekdays but also on weekends. 

By adhering to a regular sleep schedule, you can effectively regulate your body’s internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm. This, in turn, can substantially enhance the quality of your sleep. A well-regulated internal clock can make it easier for you to fall asleep and wake up, and it can also improve the overall restfulness of your sleep. 

 3. Create a Sleep-Friendly Environment:

Your bedroom, which serves as a sanctuary for rest and relaxation, should ideally be quiet, dark, and cool to ensure optimal sleeping conditions. If you find yourself struggling with distracting noises, consider the use of earplugs or a white noise machine, which can effectively mask disruptive sounds. 

Similarly, if light is an issue, an eye mask can be a valuable tool to help block out any unwanted illumination. Furthermore, the comfort of your sleeping arrangements can significantly impact your sleep quality. Therefore, you should ensure that your mattress and pillows are not only comfortable but also supportive, and replace them if they no longer meet these criteria. 

4. Avoid Stimulants Close to Bedtime:

It’s crucial to steer clear of stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, especially close to bedtime. These substances can significantly interfere with your ability to fall asleep, leading to restlessness and insomnia. You might need a sleep specialist to help with ongoing issues such as insomnia. 

In addition to this, it’s advisable to avoid eating heavy meals within a few hours before going to bed. Consuming a large meal can cause discomfort from indigestion, which can make it hard to sleep. It’s best to allow your body ample time to digest before trying to fall asleep for a more restful and undisturbed sleep. 

5. Incorporate Physical Activity into Your Routine:

Engaging in regular physical activity is a beneficial habit that can improve the quality of your sleep. It can aid in helping you fall asleep more quickly and also enjoy a deeper, more restful sleep. 

Regular exercise can also contribute to a healthier overall lifestyle. However, it’s important to time your workouts appropriately. Avoid exercising too close to your bedtime, as this can potentially interfere with your sleep. The stimulation from physical activity can cause an increase in your energy levels, which might make it challenging to fall asleep. 

6. Manage Stress:

Techniques such as relaxation exercises, meditation, and deep breathing are incredibly beneficial in promoting better sleep. These practices work by reducing anxiety, which is a common hindrance to good sleep, and promoting relaxation. The relaxation exercises involve a series of physical activities that help to relax the muscles and calm the mind. 

Meditation, on the other hand, helps to clear the mind and reduce stress, which is crucial for a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, deep breathing exercises are beneficial for slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure, which are essential factors in achieving deeper and more restful sleep. Therefore, by incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you can significantly enhance your sleep quality and overall well-being. 

Who Can Help? 

For those who are grappling with sleep issues, it’s crucial to not suffer in silence but instead seek help from professionals. These could include health professionals, such as general practitioners or nurses, as well as specialists in the field of sleep disorders, referred to as sleep specialists. 

These individuals are uniquely equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to provide guidance, help unravel the underlying issues causing your sleep problems, and recommend suitable treatment options that are tailored to your specific needs and circumstances. 

By improving the quality and duration of your sleep, they can help not only alleviate immediate symptoms such as fatigue and lack of concentration but also significantly improve your overall health and well-being in the long term. This includes strengthening your mental health, boosting your immune system, and reducing the risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, pursuing professional assistance for sleep issues can undeniably transform your life.