Understanding How Sleep Patterns Shift as We Age


October 27, 2023 4 MIN READ

sleep patterns

Understanding How Sleep Patterns Shift as We Age

Sleep is an ever-changing journey from the cradle to the golden years. From infancy, where our bodies require ample sleep to grow and develop healthily, to older age, where we require fewer hours of shut-eye, our patterns see a dramatic shift.

In older adults, sleeping hours are reduced, and certain factors, such as melatonin and cortisol production changes, make it harder to fall asleep or stay in a slumber for extended periods.

This blog will discuss the evolving sleep needs and patterns at different stages of life. It will expand on the sleep cycle and pattern changes from infancy to old age.

Typical sleep consists of four stages: N1, N2, N3, and REM.

Infancy: A World of Slumber

In the earliest stages of life, from birth to around three months, infants are in a world of their own when it comes to sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 14 to 17 hours of sleep for newborns, a significant portion of their day. Their rest is often sporadic until a regular circadian rhythm is established.

This sleep requirement is not just a matter of convenience; it’s crucial for their development. During this period, infants experience long periods of deep, slow-wave sleep (N3), vital for muscle and bone growth, due to the sustained release of human growth hormone. It’s also a time when the brain forms critical connections.

Early Childhood: Transition and Consolidation

As children age 4 to 11 months, their sleep pattern transitions. They develop a more consolidated sleep schedule, sleeping through the night and taking multiple daytime naps.

Toddlers aged 1 to 2 years experience further changes in their sleep patterns. They nap less frequently, and sleep becomes more consolidated at night. However, this stage may introduce some sleep difficulties, including bedtime resistance, nighttime awakenings, and difficulty falling asleep.

Preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, continue to experience declining daytime naps, with the risk of sleep problems increasing. These issues may involve resisting bedtime, wanting to sleep with parents, or waking up frequently at night.

Adulthood: The Sleep Chronicles

Younger adults aged 18 to 25 find themselves entering a phase where sleep patterns are more influenced by lifestyle. They spend more time in lighter sleep stages and less time in deep, refreshing sleep, which can result in feelings of not being well-rested.

Adults aged 26 to 64 require 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, but one in three American adults needs more sleep. Genetic factors and individual chronotype play a role in determining the amount of rest needed. However, lifestyle factors like alcohol and caffeine consumption, work and school demands, parenting, stress, and jet lag may contribute to this sleep deficit.

The Sleep Saga in the Golden Years

Older adults aged 65 and above often experience sleep problems attributed to various causes. The brain produces less melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep. This reduction can make falling and staying asleep at night more challenging.

Additionally, chronic medical issues, such as heart and lung problems, urinary difficulties, arthritis, or medication side effects, can contribute to sleep problems in older adults. Advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), a circadian rhythm disorder, can cause older individuals to have earlier-than-typical bed and wake times.

The Sleep-Wake Cycle: A Lifelong Rhythm

The sleep-wake cycle regulates our bed and wake times and is a lifelong rhythm that recalibrates in response to environmental and physiological changes. With age, the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin decreases, and the levels of growth hormone decline, leading to changes in sleep duration and quality.

As we age, the sleep-wake cycle changes due to lifestyle habits (e.g., alcohol and caffeine consumption) and physiological changes. Understanding the intricacies of the sleep-wake cycle and its evolution with age is essential for maintaining healthy sleep patterns.

Sleep Tips for Older Adults

Here are strategies that older adults can implement to improve their sleep quality and overall well-being:

  • Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up simultaneously every day, even on weekends. Consistency can help regulate your body’s internal clock.
  • Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment: Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Cosy sleep requires a comfortable mattress, appropriate bedding, and a dark, quiet room. Use blackout curtains, earplugs, or a white noise machine if needed.
  • Limit Screen Time: Reduce exposure to screens, such as smartphones, tablets, and TVs, in the evening. The blue light emitted from screens can interfere with melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Manage Stress: Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, to manage stress and anxiety, which can disrupt sleep.
  • Stay Active: Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality. Engage in activities suitable for your age and physical condition. However, try to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime.
  • Watch Your Diet: Be mindful of what you eat and drink, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake, as they can interfere with sleep. Avoid heavy, spicy, or large meals before bedtime.
  • Stay Hydrated: While limiting fluid intake before bedtime can reduce nighttime awakenings to use the bathroom, stay hydrated throughout the day.
  • Limit Naps: If you nap during the day, keep naps short (20-30 minutes) to avoid interfering with nighttime sleep.
  • Manage Medications: Some medications can affect sleep. Talk to your healthcare provider about your medications and potential sleep-related side effects. They may be able to adjust your medication regimen to improve your sleep.
  • Get Natural Light Exposure: Spend time outdoors during the day to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. Exposure to natural light can help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Limit Evening Stimulants: Avoid stimulating activities, discussions, or news close to bedtime, as these can increase stress and alertness.

If you find after consistently implementing the above recommendations that you still are struggling with sleep you may be caught in what we refer to as the “sleep paradox” which is the harder you try to sleep, the worse you sleep. This is a common unseen pattern many of our older clients get stuck in.

Sleep patterns change notably as we progress through different stages of life. Infants require extensive deep sleep to support their rapid growth and development. In childhood, sleep patterns transition, consolidating into more regular schedules. Younger adults experience changes influenced by lifestyle choices and external factors, while older adults face physiological shifts that can disrupt their sleep.

Understanding the nuances of the sleep-wake cycle and the factors influencing our sleep patterns is crucial for promoting well-being and addressing potential sleep-related issues. Recognizing that sleep needs to evolve with age empowers individuals to make necessary adjustments and prioritize healthy sleep habits at every stage of life.

At Sleep Science Academy, our experts are ready to offer support with free consultation. We can spot the root cause of your problem and render a solution!