This is how many hours your child should be sleeping

Sleep does not always come easily.
Sleep does not always come easily.  Photo: Shutterstock

Parents are being advised to "have fun, move and play every day", in new recommendations released by the Australian Government this week, which outline exactly what kids should be doing over a 24-hour period. Developed in conjunction with experts, the evidence-based Movement Guidelines specify how much physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep children should have each day for healthy growth and development - and their stance on screen time is particularly firm.

Infants (up to one year old) should have zero screen time, which means no DVDs, computer or other electronic games. "Instead, when sedentary, the caregiver is encouraged to engage with [children] through activities such as reading, singing, puzzles and storytelling," the guideline reads. And the same applies for toddlers under two years old.

For children aged two to five years, screen time should be limited to no more than one hour in a 24-hour period with a "less is better" approach recommended. "Unsupervised use of screens while a child is sedentary for long periods of time, can lead to language delays, reduced attention spans, lower levels of school readiness and poorer decision-making," the guidelines state, adding that this can be attributed to the child's reduced social interaction with parents and carers. Children under five should also not be restrained in a stroller, car seat or high chair for more than one hour at a time.

If you need help coming up with non screen-based "downtime activities" experts suggest:

  • reading or looking at books
  • drawing or colouring in
  • building with blocks or lego
  • playing with playdough or clay
  • doing a jigsaw puzzle.

When it comes to physical activity, the following is specified: 

  • Infants (Birth to one year) - Physical activity, via "supervised interactive floor-based play" should start from birth.  Little ones who aren't yet mobile, should have 30 minutes of "tummy time" spread throughout the day. This includes, "reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling and crawling".
  • Toddlers (one to two years) - Parents should be allocating at least 180 minutes (3 hours) each day for "energetic play" including running, jumping and twirling. "More is better", according to experts.
  • Pre-schoolers (three to five years) - Preschoolers also need at least 180 minutes (3 hours) a day of physical activity with a least 60 minutes of that including running, jumping, kicking and throwing. 

"Encourage children to try a range of activities including obstacle courses (for walkers, crawlers or shufflers!), tips, hide and seek, dancing and skipping," the guidelines note. "Practice activities like catching, kicking or throwing, but remember, slower paced activities such as puzzles, painting, water play, singing or craft are just as important."

As for the all-important question of precisely how many hours children should be sleeping, experts provide the following advice:

  • Infants: Babies (up to three months) should be having 14-17 hours of good quality sleep (including naps) over a 24-hour period. For older bubs, those aged 4 -11 months, 12 -16 hours is recommended. 
  • Toddlers: Consistent routines are important for little ones under two, with 11 - 14 hours, including naps, recommended for toddlers in a 24-hour period.
  • Pre-schoolers: Kids in this age group should be having 10 -13 hours of sleep, which may include a daytime nap. Consistent sleep and wake-up times are also important for preschoolers.

If you're suffering from information overload and worrying about how to implement some of the suggestions in your current routine, experts say it's okay to make changes slowly over time. "If you're not sure where to begin, don't worry, you don't have to change everything within a day," the guidelines counsel. "While changing a routine may seem difficult, parents can make positive changes, gradually helping their child to be healthier, happier, smarter and stronger."

At the launch of the new advice, Professor Tony Okely of the University of Wollongong, who co-led its development, said: "These guidelines are significant in that they provide for the first time, guidance for the three behaviours. Up to now, we've been silent on particular sleep and sedentary time." Professor Okley also highlighted that the new guidelines acknowledge that the "whole day matters". "We can be physically active, but if we're compromising our sleep or spending too much time with screen-based entertainment, then that's going to compromise our health," he said. "And so we need to acknowledge that these three behaviours in conjunction with one another all help to optimise the development and learning of young children."

Professor Okely also outlined the potential consequences of too much screen time for kids under two. "The fast and quick transitions that we see on screens, the bright flashing lights and the impact that that has on the developing brain is something that we need to be mindful of," he said. "Also, how it might limit or minimise communication or language development among young children as well, because it's taking the place of conversations that might happen."

Consult a summary of the guidelines here: