Sleep patterns explained: How much sleep you actually need for your age

·Lifestyle Reporter
·5-min read

If you like your sleep, you might know that your sleep pattern is influenced by many factors, such as the time of day, levels of light exposure and your lifestyle.

What you may not know, is that your sleep pattern also changes depending on your age. How you sleep is different in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and in older age.

Teenager with bright red dyed hair, sleeping in daylight hourse
Teenagers have different sleep patterns and sleep needs to children and adults. Source: Getty Images

For World Sleep Day (18th March), experts at luxury linen company, Cowberry Home, teamed up with Dr Verena Senn from Sleep Science by Emma, to explain what actually happens to our sleep patterns as we age.

The four stages of sleep

Dr Verena Senn explains that there are four main stages of sleep that repeat throughout your sleep cycle each night. These four stages are vital for your physical and cognitive health.

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Stage One: Non-REM sleep

“During stage one, you’re in a light-sleep state and can be awoken very easily. Your heartbeat, eye movements and breathing will slow down and your muscles will begin to relax. You might experience muscles twitching, as well. This stage lasts roughly 10 minutes," says Dr Senn.

Stage Two: Non-REM sleep

“During stage two, you’re still in a light-sleep state. Your heartbeat and breathing continue to slow down, while your muscles become more relaxed. Your eye movement and twitching stop but bursts of brainwave activity might occur, which are known as sleep spindles. This stage lasts between 30 and 60 minutes.”

Stage Three: Non-REM sleep

“During stage three, you’re in a deep-sleep state, and your heart rate and breathing will be at their slowest. This stage is extremely important for your immune health and energy and your muscles will begin to restore. It’s usually difficult to be awoken during this stage, which lasts between 20 and 40 minutes," Dr Senn explains.

Stage Four: REM sleep

“The REM stage usually occurs 90 minutes into your sleep cycle and is vital for memory consolidation. During this stage, eye movements and brain waves speed up and your muscles are paralysed. That’s when dreaming occurs. The first REM stage usually lasts about 10 minutes, while each additional REM stage becomes prolonged through the night.”

Sleepy woman having sweet dreams in bed with mattress, pillow, blanket at night. Person with closed eyes. Book on floor. Bedroom interior. Bedtime and darkness. Vector flat cartoon illustration
In sleep stage 3 (non-REM sleep), it's often hard to wake someone. This stage is vital to immune health, energy and muscle repair. Source: Getty Images

According to Dr Senn, it’s these stages of sleep that shift and change across our lives.

How do sleep patterns change with age?

Infant and young children’s sleep pattern

“Newborn babies tend to spend the majority of the 24-hour day sleeping. In fact, up to 20 hours are spent sleeping daily, of which about 50% is REM stage sleep”, says Dr Senn.

“Frequent awakenings characterise newborn’s sleep, and sleep episodes are generally coupled with a straight transition from alertness into REM.”

Tired Exhausted Mother Sleeping Sleep With Baby On White Bed.
Newborns can spend up to 20 hours of the day sleeping, however their sleep pattern includes frequent wakeful periods. Source: Getty Images

As children grow older, their sleep patterns undergo more changes. By the ages of four and six, the amount of stage four REM sleep reduces further, while stage-three deep sleep increases significantly.

Before children go into puberty, it’s common to experience some sleep disorders such as parasomnias. These can include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, and confusional arousals, which are brief arousals or awakenings that occur during sleep stage three.

During confusional arousals, a person might open their eyes or talk in their sleep while they remain in bed.

Adolescent and young adults’ sleep patterns

Whilst teenagers can often be blamed for sleeping in and going to bed late, Dr Senn explains that this can actually be a normal part of adolescence. Teenagers have “a propensity for a later sleep onset time during adolescence and difficulties waking up in the morning", she explains.

“Psychological or mental illnesses, characterised by anxiety and depression, are also frequent in this age range and may induce disrupted sleep,” added Dr Senn.

Young adults can also experience difficulty waking up in the morning, as well as increased frequency of awakenings. Nevertheless, sleep is essential during adolescence as it supports brain development and helps maintain energy levels. It’s also vital for the mental and physical health of the individual.

Adults and older persons sleep patterns

"In middle age, sleep deprivation becomes more common. The total sleep period reduces and individuals experience more frequent periods of wakefulness."

"It’s normal for people to become parents between the ages of 26 and 35, and that can largely affect their sleep quality, especially during the first months of the baby’s life," says Dr Senn.

“In your 40s, new concerns about sleep can arise including sleep apnoea, decreased quality of sleep, feeling tired throughout the day, changes in hormones, and less production of melatonin.”

Sleep can change with hormonal changes such as the onset of menopause.

As we age, we tend to have a shorter sleep duration during the night and take more daytime naps.

Older persons tend to experience stage-one or stage-two light sleep and often lack stage-three deep sleep.

Older man asleep on the couch holding the newspaper while he naps. His cat is asleep next to him.
As we age, we tend to have shorter sleeps at night, and nap nap more during the day. Source: Getty Images

A drop in growth hormone levels can lead to older adults developing sleep disorders like REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder. This usually occurs in people over 60 and is “characterised by episodes of vigorous speech or shouting, and violent movement or behaviour”.

Medical and psychological illnesses can also occur amongst the elderly, leading to insomnia.

How much sleep do you need for your age?

Dr Senn outlines how much sleep is healthy for each age group.

Dr Verena Senn describes how much sleep you need for your age. Source: Dr Verena Senn
Dr Verena Senn describes how much sleep you need for your age. Source: Dr Verena Senn
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