The UK Government says it’s going to issue new guidance soon on how much sleep we should get each night, with recommendations for different age groups. Encouraging news. However it’s easy to make recommendations: putting the support in place to help people to meet them is much harder. And how helpful is it to put the spotlight on the number of hours?

How many hours do people of different ages need? In 2015 The National Sleep Foundation (a highly regarded American body) undertook a thorough review of the published scientific studies on sleep and health. It then established the following guidelines:

Newborns (0 -3 months) 14 – 17 hours
Infants (4 -11 months) 12 – 15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years) 11 – 14 hours
Pre-schoolers (3 – 5 years) 10 – 13 hours
School age children (6 -13 years) 9 – 11 hours
Teenagers (14 -17 years) 8 -10 hours
Younger adults (18 -25 years) 7 -9 hours
Adults (26 -64 years)   7-9 hours
Older adults (65+ years) 7 -8 hours

Sleep plays a vital role in growth and development so it’s no surprise that babies and young children need a lot! As we get older sound sleep remains very important for health and wellbeing but we need less of it. The “architecture” of sleep – the different phases of sleep that we cycle through each night -also changes. Sleep becomes naturally more fragmented, meaning older adults wake up more frequently.

Waking up in itself isn’t a problem as long as you are able to drop quickly back off again.

The trouble with recommendations is that they can cause people to worry. Yes, we know that lack of sleep is associated with a number of very undesirable health conditions including obesity, risk of heart disease, depression, memory problems and even dementia.

But you can’t scare yourself to sleep! In fact anxiety drives sleep away.

Focusing on the quantity of sleep alone isn’t always the right approach. When I’m working with a client, I do ask them to record the number of hours they sleep each night but I also ask them to judge their sleep on quality.

People usually underestimate the amount of sleep they get. When you have trouble sleeping it’s easy to worry and feel as if you’ve been awake all night. This kind of thinking is not at all conducive to sleep!

Shifting the emphasis from quantity to quality can get round an unhelpful focus on numbers.

If you find yourself checking your sleep app in the morning and feeling dismayed when it records only a few hours of sleep then these questions about quality will help you more accurately assess your sleep:

1.       Do you wake up in the morning refreshed and ready to go? If the answer is Yes on most days, then you don’t have a sleep problem. Remember also that sleep owls take longer to feel fully awake

2.       After waking up in the morning could you fall back asleep (given the opportunity) at 10 or 11 am?

3.       Can you function at your best without caffeine in the morning?
There’s nothing wrong with a mid-morning coffee. A small amount of caffeine boosts physical and mental performance in the short term. But do you need cup after cup to get you through the day?

If you answer No to one or more of the above questions, then your sleep is below par.  The solution lies in a number of approaches to improve sleep quality first that in turn will get you the 7 hours or more that you need. Quality first then quantity. Scaring yourself about the consequences of getting less than the magic 7 hours will only make things worse!

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