How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

October 15th, 2016  /   Articles

You hated sleep when you were four. You loved it when you were a tween. You skimped on it and pulled all-nighters in college. Then as an adult, you finally learned how important it was to get a good night’s sleep. As we age, we require different amounts of sleep. From infancy to our elder years, our sleep needs change. In this article, we’ll go over how much sleep you need at the various stages of your life, the importance of quality sleep, and a few other surprising facts about your nightly rest.

How Much Sleep is Enough?

For anyone interested in sleep, this is the most common and essential question. The truth is, when it comes to sleep duration, there is no single number that is right for everyone. Sleep needs vary by individual, and change at different times over the course of a lifespan. You begin life with a high demand for sleep—newborns spend somewhere between 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping. Then as a young child, you generally require 10 to 12 hours of sleep to meet your needs. Adolescents typically need nine or more hours. Most healthy adults require somewhere in the range of seven to nine hours of nightly sleep to feel rested, mentally sharp and alert, with sufficient energy to meet the demands of the waking day. There are some people who can function well on six hours or less of sleep, but scientists estimate that these lucky individuals make-up no more than a small sliver of the general population—around 5 percent. Most of us need at least seven or more hours of sleep on a regular basis to function at and feel our best.

How is America Sleeping?

If you’re like most Americans, getting seven to eight hours of sleep on a regular basis might seem unrealistic or difficult to achieve. Busy schedules and the rigorous demands of work and family life often push your sleep aside. In the United States, sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels. Estimates are that nearly a third of U.S. adults are sleeping less than seven hours a night. Chronic insufficient sleep has serious and long-term consequences for your health, productivity, and relationships. Getting enough sleep on a regular basis is not only possible, but it’s also too important to ignore.

Dealing with Sleep Debt

A night or two of less sleep every once in a while will make you feel mentally and physically fatigued, but probably won’t affect your health or performance over the long term. Sleep deprivation becomes a real problem to health and quality of life when it becomes the rule rather than the exception. Not getting sufficient amounts of sleep creates what experts call a “sleep debt”. Sleep debt accrues like any other kind of debt—when you don’t “pay in” what you owe—in this case, sufficient time for restful sleep. A little sleep debt is actually a good thing. Being tired at the end of the day helps increase the need for sleep. But too much sleep debt can cause problems with daily functioning and overall health. A large sleep debt can lead to diminished mental performance and changes to your appetite that can lead to weight gain.

Erasing a sleep debt that’s been accrued is best done gradually. If you’ve run short on sleep during the week, it may be tempting to try to catch up with extra sleep on the weekends. Research suggests that this catch-up strategy doesn’t fully remedy the effects of the initial sleep loss. A varying sleep schedule also undermines your body’s ability to regulate sleep effectively. Too much catch-up sleep can leave you wide awake and unable to fall asleep by the end of the weekend. This “Sunday night insomnia” translates into “Monday morning blues,” as you wake tired from too little sleep. You can avoid this see-sawing sleep difficulty by maintaining a regular bedtime and wake time throughout the week. If you find yourself short on sleep after a stretch of insufficient rest, add no more than 30-60 minutes of extra sleep to your bedtime.

Making Sure You’re Getting Enough Sleep

The key to avoiding sleep debt is consistency. Regular bedtimes and wake times help ensure you’re getting enough sleep to meet your individual needs. Creating a routine that lets you meet your sleep needs is possible with some simple adjustments. For most people, it is easier to adjust bedtimes than wake times—so start by identifying the time you need to rise in the morning. To determine your bedtime, work backward a full eight hours from your necessary wake time. Spend a week or so on this sleep schedule. If you’re getting sufficient sleep, you should feel able to focus throughout the day with enough energy to meet both mental and physical demands. Pay attention to how you feel, and continue to adjust your bedtime to refine your sleep duration until you find the number that works for you. Once you’ve found the sleep routine that works for you, stick to it— even on the weekends. A regular sleep schedule is your best defense against racking up a large sleep debt.

The right amount of sleep is the amount that leaves you feeling rejuvenated, refreshed, and prepared for the day ahead. Identifying the sleep duration that meets your individual needs is the first step toward a lifelong habit of healthy sleep.

“How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
“Rare Genetic Mutation Lets Some People Function with Less Sleep”. Scientific American.
“1 In 3 Adults Don’t Get Enough Sleep”.
“Consequences of Insufficient Sleep”. Harvard Health Publishing.
“Repaying Your Sleep Debt”. Harvard Health Publishing.
“Getting the Right Amount of Sleep”. ResMed