Most adults value their sleep, and if you're a parent, you are particularly tuned in to how important sleep is. But there's still a lot to learn about this topic (which, incidentally, one of my uncles, Dr. Jed Black, is constantly digging deeper into, as head of the Sleep Center at Stanford University).
Sleep has always been important to me, more so than to most people I know. In my junior high years and then especially in high school, I came to realize that I needed eight to nine hours of sleep every night in order to function properly. Sometimes I had to fudge on that a little, if I had a particularly difficult test coming up, etc, but I diligently strove to do my studying during the day so I wouldn't have to pull all-nighters. Staying up late made me miserable. I could tell that my immune system was compromised and, if not soon corrected, lack of sleep would soon make me sick. Of course, it also made me cranky, unable to think as clearly as I needed to as a student, and much less capable of handling my stress load or coping with life in general. I was continually astounded that the majority of my friends (and generally all my peers) would squeak by on five hours or less. (I didn't know anyone else my age who went to bed at the early hour of 9:30 pm.) I didn't know how they did it--and I still don't. The research I have read about this age group states that young people actually lose years of their life due to extreme lack of sleep. In college I had a friend who, after continuous problems, had a sleep test done and found that she is one of those rare people who needs 14 hours of sleep a day to feel normal. She could hardly ever get that much, as you can imagine, but that made me grateful I only need eight!
So how much sleep do you need in a 24 hour period? It depends on how old you are.
In general, here is the break down:
Infants - 16 hours
Preschoolers - 11 hours
School-aged children - 10 hours
Teenagers - 9 hours
Adults - 7-8 hours
Now, I know many of you will look at this list and think, No way! But I also know that many people have never given it a try and experienced the difference more sleep can make--for yourself and/or your child(ren). For example, as Ms. Kurcinka states in her fantastic book Sleepless in America: Is your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?, a great deal of behavioral problems in children can be treated and corrected by increasing the amount of sleep a child gets. As I have witnessed in my own children, overtiredness results in hyperactivity, misbehavior, and inability to cope. And so when parents comment that there's no way their children could go to bed at eight or nine p.m., they're just too wired, I think, Ah, but that's why they're wired, that's why they can't settle down at night. More on this later....
The Mayo clinic (and all other research on the topic agrees) states:
Although some people feel rested on as few as five hours of sleep a night, recent studies call this notion into question. Researchers have found that people who sleep so little over many nights don't perform as well on complex mental tasks as do people who get closer to seven hours of sleep a night. Additionally, researchers have found that adults who get much more or less than seven hours of sleep a night have a higher mortality rate than do adults who sleep about seven hours a night.
And older adults are not exempted from this, according to the article. Also see the article for tips on how to tell if you're not getting enough sleep and the importance of not just quality but quantity sleep.