How Much Sleep Do We Need?

12 June, 2011

“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”  Wilson Mizener

“Even where sleep is concerned, too much is a bad thing.”  Homer

The specific amount of sleep required varies from person to person.  Florence Nightingale, Margaret Thatcher and Napoleon Bonaparte were said to be able to operate perfectly well on 4 or 5 hours a night.

A recent study from the University of San Diego suggests that the average American reports sleeping about 6½ hours a night.  Other experts consider 5½ hours to be adequate for most people to maintain alertness, even though this amount of sleep might not leave you feeling fully refreshed.

So how much do we really need?  Anything from 5 to 11 hours seems to be normal, with 6 to 8 hours being the average.  For a good way to measure how much you need, follow the advice of Jim Horne from Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre: “The amount of sleep we require is what we need not to be sleepy in the daytime.”

This may seem a bit imprecise but it is excellent guidance.  We are all different and need varying amounts of sleep.  What you need to function well may be very different from what I need or your best friend needs.


Sleeplessness also affects people in diverse ways.  Insomnia is more common amongst women, people aged over 60 and those with a history of depression.  But even for the same age, gender and fitness, requirements are as individual as you are.

Another reason that our sleep needs are all different is that it is becoming clear to researchers that sleep requirements are affected by two different factors:

Basal Sleep Need – the amount of sleep we need on a regular basis for optimal performance.

And Sleep Debt – the accumulated sleep that you have lost to bad sleep habits, sickness, environmental sleep loss etc.

If you achieve your basal sleep need of say 7 or 8 hours a night for several nights in a row but have accumulated sleep debt from working late, partying too hard or being woken by the baby several nights in a row, you may still end up feeling groggy and sleep-deprived.

The good news is that you can “pay down” the sleep debt by ensuring that you get adequate sleep.

So far, research has not been able to pinpoint thee exact amount of sleep that each of us need.  However, according to The National Sleep Foundation, there are some rules of thumb which most experts agree upon.  These are set out in the table below:


Age Sleep Needs
Newborn baby (0-2 months) 12 to 18 hours
Infants (3-11 months) 14 to 15 hours
Toddlers (1-3 years) 12 to 14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5 years) 11 to 13 hours
School-age children (5-10 years) 10 to 11 hours
Teens (10-17 years) 8 ½ to 9 ¼ hours
Adults 7 to 9 hours

Source: National Sleep Foundation

If we accept we are all different, and ignore the commonly held view of an ideal 8 hours a day, then we are well on the way to reducing the stress we feel around our sleep habits, and therefore to improving our relationship with sleep.

Pay attention to your own individual needs by checking in on how you feel after different amounts of sleep.  Make sleep a priority.  Schedule sleep as you do all the other activities of your day.  And listen to your body: it will let you know if you are not getting enough.

Did you know? Diaries from the pre-electric light bulb Victorian era show adults slept nine to ten hours a night.  Periods of rest changed with the seasons in line with sunrise and sunsets.

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