How Do Sleep Cycles Change? | Tuft & Needle

As we age, our sleep cycles can change pretty drastically. Babies, for example, require sixteen hours of sleep a day, whereas an older adult probably only needs between seven and eight. The way our sleep cycles function help determine when and how much you should sleep—understanding how these cycles shift as you get older can help make sure your body is getting enough rest.

How do sleep cycles work?

Everyone goes through four stages of sleep that comprise a sleep cycle at night. Drowsiness, lighter sleep, and deep sleep are followed by REM periods where we actively dream. Typically, adults average four or five sleep cycles a night.

As you drift between stages, you may wake slightly, but usually kids and younger adults won’t remember these wakings. As we get older, we spend less time in deep, dreamless sleep—the third stage. We also become more aware of waking up as we age. Older sleepers are also quicker to transition out of sleep, waking more abruptly.

These shortened sleep cycles can be a tough adjustment, but there are a few things you can do to help ease the transition if you’re struggling to sleep.

  • A light snack before bed can help you avoid waking up hungry in the middle of a sleep cycle.
  • Avoid caffeine at least three or four hours before bed.
  • Ask your doctor to make sure that any medications you’re on aren’t stimulants, or if you can’t avoid them, try taking them in the morning only. 
  • Avoid napping midday. Older adults need less sleep, so consolidating it to the evenings helps avoid early wake ups. 
How much sleep do we need as we age?

Our sleep needs change a lot over the years. Infants generally need between fourteen and sixteen hours of sleep per day, where older kids will typically sleep around ten to thirteen hours. Teenagers should be getting at least eight hours of sleep, but may benefit from nine or ten hours. Older teens will start to need only seven to nine hours and that should stay consistent until they reach retirement age. After sixty-five, most adults will only need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. 

Of course, these are general recommendations. These should be considered a rule-of-thumb and adjusted if you’re particularly active or have a special circumstance. Pregnant women, for example, are diverting a large percentage of their energy toward their baby, so they may find they need much more sleep than they did previously. 

How do know if you’re getting enough sleep?

Everyone’s individual sleep needs varies, but there are a few ways you can tell if you are sleep deprived. It doesn’t always feel as dramatic as you’d think—chronic sleep deprivation can sneak up on you in small ways. 

  • Do you depend on multiple cups of coffee or caffeinated drinks to get through the day?
  • Are you suffering from sleep interruptions (insomnia, early waking, can’t fall asleep, etc.)?
  • Do you have a hard time staying awake while driving?
  • Do you find that you sleep for long periods (10+ hours) once or twice a week to “catch up” on what you’re missing?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might be getting less sleep than you need. There are a lot of things you can change in your daily habits to set the stage for great sleep, and it’s always a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider about sleep concerns. 

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Shelly Weaver-Cather
Shelly Weaver-Cather

Shelly Weaver is part of the Content Team at Tuft & Needle, leading the writing and editing of our blog. Not quite a Phoenix native, (They take that sort of thing super seriously.) Shelly has spent most of her life in the Phoenix Metro area and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. She made the unexpected jump out of wedding photography and onto T&N’s team in 2016, and found a passion for the people that keep the lights on. She still finds herself shooting in her free time, though these days there are less bridal portraits and more masterpieces of her first child, Duke, a lab-pit mix with an unparalleled love for both T&N mattress hogging and couch destroying.

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