How Much Sleep Do You Really Need - Age, Weekly Cycle and Personal Needs Guide


The famous mantra that everyone needs eight hours sleep a night has become a dream for some, and a nightmare for others. The reality is that different people have varying needs for sleep, have different sleep cycles and patterns.

The ideal average amount of sleep needed varies with age, but also varies considerably. Recent research has confirmed the individual variability. It has also shown that if you get behind in your normal sleep pattern, your body will try to catch up for the sleep you missed.

Research conducted in Sydney Australia confirmed that there is a weekly and fortnightly pattern of sleep. Many people get behind in their sleep needs on weekdays, and build up a sleep debt. They then need to repay the debt by sleeping more on weekends. It’s similar to a credit card, you can get behind using credit, but you have to pay the debt back eventually.

The research also showed that sleep requirements, patterns and the ability to make up for lost sleep varies between individuals.

► Some people need a lot less sleep and only take a couple of days to catch up.

► Others can take up to 18 days for their sleep patterns to return to normal and catch up on missed sleep.

► Understanding how the amount of sleep required varies with age, the weekly cycle of debt and repayment, and how individual sleep needs vary, are important for ensuring you get enough sleep.

► Not everyone needs 8 hours sleep every night.

This article reviews the latest research on sleep needs, cycles and patterns.

How much sleep do you really need
How much sleep do you really need. Source: author
REM sleep
REM sleep. Source: author
Teens and night owls and early birds at the same time
Teens and night owls and early birds at the same time. Source: author

General Advice on Sleep Required for Various Age Groups

The standard data for average sleep requirements is shown in the table below. Each category has a range of values reflecting variation between individuals. It also shows how naps contribute to the overall amount of sleep for children under the age of five years. People older than 60 years also tend it have regular naps and require much less sleep at night than younger adults. Napping in teenagers and young adults is generally a sign that the person is not getting enough sleep at night. That said, it is remarkable how effective a short nap can be in refreshing the brain and overcoming tiredness.

Sleep Requirements at Night and during Naps

Age Group
Total Sleep
Sleep at Night (hours)
Sleep during the Day (hours)
Newborns (O - 2 months)
12 - 18 hours
6 - 9 hours
6 - 9 hours
Infants (2 - 12 months)
14 - 15 hours
9 -12 hours
2.5 - 5 hours
Toddlers (1 - 3 years)
12 - 15 hours
9.5-11.5 hours
1.5 - 3.5 hours
Preschool (3 - 5 years)
11 - 13 hours
Most sleep is at night
Daytime naps become rarer. A child (3 -5 years of age) tends to stop napping at this age.
School-Age (5 - 12 years)
9 - 11 hours
All sleep should be at night.
Naps at this age tend to be from not getting enough sleep at night.
Teenagers (13 - 19 years)
8.5 - 10 hours
All sleep should be at night.
Naps at this age tend to be from not getting enough sleep at night.
Adults (19+ years)
7 - 9 hours
All sleep should be at night.
Naps at this age tend to be from not getting enough sleep at night.
Adults > 60 Years
6 - 7 hours
Most sleep at night.
Regular naps are common for older people

Making Up for Lost Sleep

Unlike some previous research, that has suggested that busy people made up for lost sleep by sleeping in on the weekend, the Australian study showed that the sleep debt could be repaid over a much longer period of time, by adding blocks of one to two extra hours. Sleep patterns and recovery varied widely between individuals. It appeared that there were as wide range of individual cycles that was built into each person, rather than being a behaviour pattern.

Fourteen subjects were fitted with sleep monitoring devices over a 14 day period. Their Total Sleep Time (TST including naps) was measured by the devices for each 24 hour period. The figure below shows the wide variation in individual cycles. Various people needed different amounts of sleep and their debt and recovery patterns were different. Most period would be unaware of their individual inherent cycle and sleep patterns. In view of this, general advice about trying to sleep eight hours a day may not be very helpful.

Wide variation in sleep patterns and cycles over 14 days - TST - Total Sleep Time including Naps (minutes in 24 hours)
Wide variation in sleep patterns and cycles over 14 days - TST - Total Sleep Time including Naps (minutes in 24 hours) Source: http://www.dovepress.com/the-periodicity-of-sleep-duration-ndash-an-infradian-rhythm-in-spontan-peer

Teenage Sleep Problems

As shown in the table above, teenagers generally need more sleep than adults, generally an extra hour or so. But many teenagers stay up very late at night and end up deprived of sleep when they are awaken each day to get to school, college or their jobs.

Typically many teenagers , for a variety of reasons linked with caffeinated drinks and the stimulant effect of computer games, videos and social engagement, do not readily fall asleep before 11 p.m. or later. However many of them have to get up at 6 a.m. or earlier for their work or studies. Teenagers not working or going to school or college can end up becoming fully nocturnal, awake all night and sleeping most of the day. Sleep deprivation is such a widespread problem that many schools and colleges have shifted their start time back by an hour. Lack of sleep is a major issue for teenagers and young adults.

Research has shown that up to 90% of teenagers sleep less than 9 hours a night, and 10% average less than six hours. This leaves many teenagers vulnerable to the many problems associated with sleep deprivation. Tests have shown that many teenagers are pathologically sleepy when school starts and this has been shown to affect their performance.

After five weeknights of sleep deprivation, many teenagers and adults try to sleep-in after noon on weekends to catch up. While this works, to some extent, it can make them harder to arouse on Monday mornings. Parents need to be aware of the sleep debt that accumulates during the week and to allow them to sleep extra hours on the weekend. it is important to try to understand their long term cycle and adapt to it.

Concerned parents should also start keeping sleep diaries for their children. This will enable them to look for discrepancies between their sleep needs and the actual amount of sleep they over a week or a fortnight. However, parents should try to exert some controls by setting an appropriate bedtime and exert control over caffeinated drinks, so that they are not consumed after 5 PM.

Parents should also encourage their teenagers should avoid stimulating activities in the evening and bright lights (easy to say, but hard to do). Similarly getting light exposure in the morning can help to reset the biological clock, that can get out of sync with irregular sleep patterns.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

What are the Consequences of Chronic Lack of Sleep and Sleep Deprivation?

Research has shown that inadequate sleep over long periods of time has a wide range of negative impacts, physical and mental that go much further than drowsiness through the day. It can cause serious mood swings and depression. Lack of enough sleep affects coordination, concentration, ability to engage in activities, judgment and reaction times. It can also seriously affect social interaction.

Some of the effects include:

Can You Pay off Your sleep Debt? Will this prevent the impact of Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you actually get and what you really need. Every time you scrimp on sleep, you add to the debt (like a credit card bill). Eventually, the debt will have to be repaid; you have to sleep to pay it off. If you lose an hour of sleep, you need an extra hour sometime later in order to get you sleep time balanced again.

Is Sleeping in, on weekends Enough!

Many people try to repay their sleep debt by having extra sleep on Saturdays and Sundays, but this is only partially successful as the five days of inadequate sleep accumulates. One or two good night's of sleep on the weekend will not pay off a long-term debt and won't overcome the damage that has already been sustained. While the extra sleep does help, people often feel tired and washed out, even after long sleeps in. Short naps during the week are also very helpful, but will not fully overcome the problem.

Tips for Managing Sleep Debt

Below are several tips for living with a sleep debt and managing its impact:





How much sleep is really needed? Image 1
How much sleep is really needed? Image 1
How much sleep is really needed? Image 2
How much sleep is really needed? Image 2
How much sleep is really needed? Image 3
How much sleep is really needed? Image 3
How much sleep is really needed? Image 4
How much sleep is really needed? Image 4
How much sleep is really needed? Image 5
How much sleep is really needed? Image 5
Poor attention span is a consequence of lack of sleep
Poor attention span is a consequence of lack of sleep. Source: author
Inadequate sleep linked to poor grades and poor health in teenagers
Inadequate sleep linked to poor grades and poor health in teenagers. Source: Public Domain
Late nights leads to poor sleep patterns an inattention in class
Late nights leads to poor sleep patterns an inattention in class. Source: Public Domain
One thing leads to another. The vicious cycle causing inadequate sleep in teenagers and health problems
One thing leads to another. The vicious cycle causing inadequate sleep in teenagers and health problems. Source: Source: Public Domain
The Night Mare
The Night Mare. Source: Public Domain