How Much Sleep Do We Need—And How Do We Get It?

Living in this caffeine-charged, 24-7 society leaves a large percentage of us chronically and dangerously sleep deprived. According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, “it is estimated that 50 to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a disorder of sleep and wakefulness, hindering daily functioning and adversely affecting their health and longevity.” And this is not just an American problem. Studies throughout the Western world come to similar conclusions—we are all lacking in both quantity and quality of sleep. 

So if we’re so short on sleep, how much sleep do we really need? And how do we make sure we get the quantity of sleep necessary for good health?

Our sleep needs change as we go through life, and sleep needs differ somewhat from person to person. The U.S. National Institutes of Health recommend that newborn infants sleep up to 18 hours each day, and active toddlers need just a few hours less. By the time children are in school, they need 10 to 12 hours per night. Older children and teens still require at least nine hours while adults require seven or eight hours of sleep daily. Even older adults, who often seem to rise early and have erratic sleep schedules, still need seven or eight hours each night.

Obtaining that eight hours has been growing increasingly difficult since the discovery of fire. And now that we’ve progressed to having PDAs and mobile phones demanding our attention around the clock, it’s hard to imagine a time when humans set and rose with the sun. We each need to make choices about our electronic interruptions instead of allowing them to dictate our schedules. But even if we cut out all unnecessary sleep-robbing electronics and activities and try to get in bed at a decent hour, we still may not be getting the quality of sleep we need.

The following recommendations for better sleep are adapted from tips from the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University Sleep Research Center, the U.S National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the U.S. National Sleep Foundation: 

  • Stick to a schedule. Yes, even on your days off. Sleeping in on weekends and late afternoon or evening naps disrupt your body’s sleep-wake cycle. A short (about half an hour) mid-afternoon nap can be a good pick-me-up, but don’t go too long or too late.  
  • Exercise, especially the aerobic variety, is a valuable sleep aid, but make certain it’s done at least two or three hours before bedtime. Exercise with a balanced diet can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is important for good sleep.    
  • Pay attention to what you do, eat and drink in the evening hours. Light snacks are fine, but avoid eating meals within two hours of bedtime. Some people find that spicy or fatty foods (chips and salsa, buttered popcorn, ice cream, potato chips!) hamper restful sleep. Winding down with a good book, soothing music or a warm bath (or all three!) in the evening can help your body relax. Soft lighting is sleep-inducing, while bright lights give your body the wrong message at night. Even bright television and computer screens late in the evening can confuse your internal clock. And we all know that drinking lots of fluid before bedtime may force you to make unscheduled bathroom trips during prime sleep time.  
  • Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are all sleep-disturbing drugs. Although a “nightcap” may help you fall asleep initially, alcohol consumed within a few hours of bedtime actually makes it harder to sleep deeply and results in disrupted sleep. Caffeine from foods and beverages may take eight or more hours to leave the system and can keep you awake until the effects have worn off, so limit drinking coffee, colas and even hot chocolate to morning and early afternoon. Smokers may suffer from nicotine withdrawal during the night and would benefit greatly from quitting smoking altogether. Of course, smoking in bed is just one doze away from disaster.  
  • Make sure your room is quiet and ready for sleep. The body takes its sleep cues from light. Take advantage of this and open the curtains in the morning and get a good dose of sunlight, then darken the room when it’s time for bed. A comfortable mattress and pillow plus a cool temperature with light clothing and blankets should help you get the slumber you need. A fan can help with cooling breezes and can also mask noise. Children, pets and snoring sleep partners can be disruptive, so you may need to set limits or at least discuss options with co-sleepers.  
  • Reducing stress and worry in your life will help your sleep and your health, both immediately and as part of a bigger picture.  
  • If you lie awake in bed for more than 15 minutes to half an hour, get up. Read a book or do something relaxing—but not in bed. Bed is for sleep. You may try writing down any concerns or plans for the next day, thereby helping to free your mind for sleep. Return to bed when you feel tired. 

If you have done all you can to help with your sleep situation and are still finding it difficult to get the rest you need, you may be tempted to try drugs. Although short-term use of sleeping pills and herbal potions have been helpful as a last resort for some, long-term use may not be so helpful and may even be harmful. You may actually be suffering from a treatable sleep disorder, so you may wish to consult with a health professional to learn more about your situation.