Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gifted Children and Sleep

An article on CNN's website claims that enforcing a bedtime improves health outcomes for children and also has a chart of how much sleep children need. Apparently, toddlers need 12-14 hours, slightly older preschoolers need 11-13 hours, and elementary school kids need 10-11 hours. For most children, this may be true (and enforcing the bedtime may be a good idea for all kids!) but a number of parents have found an interesting truth: some highly gifted kids appear to need a lot less.

There are various theories about this: the kids' brains don't really shut down, or they're just wired differently. While this can be a positive in families with two working parents (hey, more time together in the evenings!) it can be tough if the kid needs less sleep than the adults.

I'm curious if parents who read this blog have found this trait in their own children, and how you've dealt with it. How do you figure out how much sleep your child needs? How do you stay sane if your 3-year-old likes to go to bed at 10pm?


Lisa said...

We used to have a problem with DS9. We would put him to bed at an "appropriate" time (so he'd get his 10 hours -- he routinely awakens at 6 a.m., so that meant 8 p.m.).

He would lie in bed for hours, thinking and worrying. He'd call me into his room repeatedly because he was worried about one thing or another. He just could not get his brain to shut down.

Finally, I started letting him read in bed at night until he was tired enough just to go to sleep. Usually that gets him sleepy enough to drop off at 9 or shortly after.

It has to be gentle reading, though. Nothing too upsetting. He's read The Secret Garden about 10 times now!

Annie said...

I agree with Lisa.

My eight year old has never needed sleep. As an infant, a 15 minute "power nap" in the car was enough to take him till bedtime. Even then, he screamed every night for 20 minutes after we put him in bed because he didn't want to miss out on anything for the first four years of his life.

At that point, we discovered reading. Now, he reads till he falls asleep. Even with that, we sometimes have a fight over turning off the lights at 11.

Our main goal is just to get and keep him in bed at a reasonable hour. We have no illusions about getting him to actually sleep.

Gramatrick said...

No, all through elementary school I found that my son needed more than the average amount of sleep. And he was an early (6 am) riser, so that meant an 8 pm bedtime. With this child, if he didn't eat (protein) at regular intervals or sleep enough, he had real difficulty handling his emotions -- much more likely to break down in stressful situations. And as he has a strong perfectionist streak, he was constantly creating stressful situations for himself.

Now, in middle school, he has found a more even place and abandoned some of that perfectionism, anxiety and tension that used to plague him. As a consequence, we can be somewhat looser with bed times and allow him later nights, especially on the weekends.

Even for him now, though, it's usually lights out at 8:30pm. Perhaps because he's physically active most days, he is usually asleep by 9. Some of his peers are up until 10pm doing homework, but that would be a disaster for him. He's up so early that he can finish his work in the morning if need be.

Brother has a different natural rhythm and is not a "morning" person. He also can get by on a little less sleep. I just think every child is different, and I'm not sure there's a correlation with giftedness and your natural sleep rhythms.

James, Amelia, Ashley, Paige, and Michael said...

We do a similar thing with our 6 year old, who has never needed as much sleep as is recommended. She is supposed to be in bed by 8, but listens to audio books until she falls asleep (around 10, normally).

Cheryl said...

I can relate to Lisa's story. I don't know if it's true that my son needs less sleep, but it's definitely true that he can't turn his brain off and get to sleep at night. He just turned 10, gets up at 6, and has trouble going to sleep before 10. He doesn't seem to get too tired, though.

I used to be the same way as a kid--just too hard to turn the brain off at night, so I'd sneak a flashlight under the covers and read. In fact, I'm that way as an adult. :)

Mama Bear said...

Dr. James Webb, founder of SENGifted and author of Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults, says the sleep issue cuts both ways - some gifted kids need a lot of sleep and some need little.

We found that to be true with our two gifted kids.

My daughter needs 9 hours of sleep and will usually head to bed between 8:30 and 9:30, reading a little before turning off the lights. She and all her friends know that she'll turn into a bi*!h if she doesn't get her sleep. (They congratulated her on being able to stay up until 1:00 on prom night without getting mean.)

Note to Gramatick: she also has reactive hypoglycemia, which requires protein at frequent intervals. Dr. Webb talks about this, too, and thinks it's because gifted kids' brains consume more glucose.

My son, on the other hand, doesn't need much sleep and would be the Energizer bunny if we hadn't figured out that we have to eliminate all stimulation. About 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, I start turning out lights, turning down the TV volume, etc.

Both kids are in college now and go to bed before their friends but also get up hours before their friends do on the weekends. In fact, they complain that weekend mornings are boring. But they have learned to manage their sleep habits and realize the value of a regular bedtime.

SwitchedOnMom said...

I always tell frazzled parents with babies who won't sleep that it's a sign of intelligence. Makes them feel better ;-)

But in our case my kids did in fact seem to need less sleep. How did we deal? We co-slept. Every sleeping person to sleeping surface permutation imaginable. And we didn't really enforce a bed time. Result: we have never had any bedtime battles or sleep issues. They go to be when they are tired End of story.

Anonymous said...

My older PG DD7 does not need much sleep and fights to go to sleep. Reading definitely helps and she does it every night. If she has had a particularly interesting day, she will talk all night in her sleep. :-) In spite of that, she will wake up rested.

My younger PG DD5, knows her body like the clock it is. She will go to bed by herself when she needs to, wake up on time without an alarm, eat at regular times and gives herself 9-10 hours of sleep. I like to think that she can control her own body and mind better than my older one.

The Princess Mom said...

It's really not very helpful for parents of gifted kids to pay attention to what the average child needs with regards to anything--sleep, screen time, milestones, number of scheduled activities, etc. etc. Our kids are outliers.

LouAnn said...

From the time my son was born he didn't sleep much. He was never a big napper and didn't sleep through the night until he was at least 3 years old. Even then he would wake up and crawl into my bed (at least he didn't wake me up).
He is now 9 and no matter what time he gets to bed he is up at 6. I try to have him in bed by 8:30, but it takes him a while to fall asleep. He also worries a lot at bedtime.

Kevin said...

Our son slept poorly as an infant and gave up naps early, but now as a 13-year-old needs 9 hours a night. He also needs to eat small amounts 5-6 times a day.

He gets extremely irritable and unable to work when he hasn't slept or eaten enough.

Anonymous said...

My PG 5yo needs 11 hours of sleep per night, or he is a bear. As an infant and toddler, he was a terrible napper, but he always slept well at night.

Anonymous said...

Child number 1 (MG maybe HG) needed less sleep than normal as an infant and used to get up at 4.30 am....This gradually pushed out and now at 7 years she sleeps 10.5 hours like a log, and gets up at 7am.

Child number 2 (HG) has always slept a bit less than normal, also used to get up at 4.30am but unfortunately has extended this out no further than 5.30 or 6am.

Their dad is an early riser and I'm lucky he's prepared to parent them at these unearthly hours!

LimeGreen said...

Our 9 year old son NEVER sleeps in.....even if he is up to 11 pm on a rare occasion.......he will still be up at 5-5:30 in the morning. He will be up, but not rested. He says he just can't sleep in. Normally, we try to get him in bed reading by 8pm, try to get him exercise, but if he does any evening activity, he really has trouble settling. If there is any kind of special event the next day, he will be up really really early.

Laura said...

I have a 2 year old, and he hasn't been assessed formally as "gifted," but based on various milestones (knowing colors, letters, vocabulary etc.), we think he might be. He gets 8 hours at night plus a 2 hour nap at preschool, and he seems totally rested. I've been concerned that this isn't "normal" until I read about gifted children. Did any of your toddlers sleep that little at night when they were age 2?

Anonymous said...

I am a gifted teenager and I have had an "odd" sleep schedule as early as 4th grade. When your mind goes a million miles an hour all day-all night-no bed time, no "lights out" nor technology pull can stop the whirling. Sometimes staying up until 3 on a school night is the only way to get everything done. When I go to bed at the respectable time, I find myself stressed and worried-wondering if I missed out on something, wondering if I forgot to do something-and wondering what I could have spent that time doing. Parents cannot always expect for a child to keep to a certain bedtime. Gifted children know themselves better than anyone else. We know our limitations-our patterns and yes, even the risks we take. I sleep when I am tired--when I have finished what is on my mind. I wind down at night in prayer or with music or a book - even talking to a friend can calm my mind. No matter what the journals or the studies say, sleep is personal, and most "night owls" understand what they are doing. You cannot blame it on yourself for not setting a time. You cannot blame yourself for why they don't sleep enough. It is normal and when they get older-they will find out it isn't that irregular. Encourage your child to sleep when they are tired but also let them know that you support their work ethic. Let them know that you know they have different needs. It is easy to feel alone when you are suddenly thrown a bedtime at and you are forced to revise lifelong habits. If you are truly worried about their sleeping-chances are they know why and they might even be worried about it too. Don't try to pounce change on a gifted child. Trust me, it won't work.

Anonymous said...

I'm gifted and I have a bed time at 9. I find myself goin to bed at ten some nights though.

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and am 2 years late to this discussion...I have a son who, as a baby, never really napped regularly or to the extent that my friends's babies preschool he was literally the only one in his school's aftercare, and then still begged to go to the playground when we picked him up at 5. I always wondered if this was normal, as friends said their kids would konk out after school let out at 2:30. At ages 5-7 he slept 10 hours and that was good...he just turned 8 and for the last couple of months has only been sleeping 9 hours/night, less on weekends (he never sleeps in). I asked his pediatrician about this and she said he should sleep 10-11 hours but, honestly, I don't know how to "make" him. He is VERY physically active and has very long days, and we thought this would tire him out, We've bought dark curtains for his room and always end his evenings with a story, relaxing music and snuggling. As he said to me when he was 5, "My body is telling me to move, move, move! I have to listen to my body!" I am thinking that as long as he is still alert and happy during the day, then we just let him be.

Heather Holme said...


This was our fix:

We have two gifted daughters, 3 1/2 and 4 1/2. The problem with over active brains is no joke. It has taken me about 4 years of reward systems, punishments, changing rules, changing bedtimes, trying different routines, etc to finally crack the case.

The key is not to try to get them to sleep rather to get them to relax! What we do is whisper story time. They each pick a book and the adult picks a book that they know very well. For story time to begin, they need to be laying on their pillows in bed. Not sitting on laps, chairs, cuddled in a non-sleeping position etc. The first book they may ask questions and interact a little but after that they need to just listen. When we read these stories to them, we whisper in a clam slow tone. No character voices, or silliness. The third story is the one that the adult pick. If there are pictures we hold the book so they can't see them or we pick a book without many pictures at all. We also pick something they know well so that they don't try to stay up to hear the end.

They have sleeping reward charts and every night that they go to sleep during story time, they get an extra sticker on their chart.

after about 6 months of this method we don't even need the charts any more. They fall asleep during story time 99.9% of the time.

For their entire lives, they wouldn't be able to fall asleep until 9:30-11:00 even though I would get them in bed before 8. Now they are in bed ASLEEP between 7:30-8:00 every single night.

There's a new found peace in my house and head.
Hope this is helpful!
Hang in there!!!!!!

Claire said...


I have a three and a half year old daughter who is just not a good sleeper and never has been. Attempts to wear her out ususally mean I am exhausted and she is happily content!

We have started synthetic Melatonin per beahaviourists advice. (She has a few behavioural issues too which we are struggling with). She now is relaxed and goes to sleep OK but it still up 2/3 times a night. I am now so tired I don't know what way is up most days. suggestions have been ribbon on door to remind her its time to stay in bed, failing that a safety gate so door open but can't actually get out without effort. Knowing her aptitude to thwart attempts to try and move her towards conforming to anything. Anyone else had same issue have any tips? We would be most grateful. thx claire

Anonymous said...

I am so happy to have found this website!! Although my child has not been labeled gifted yet by his school. I know for sure that he is! He can not shut off his brain at night and is constantly thinking! He has so much trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Hearing all your comments has been comforting to me! He also has to eat more small meals to get through the day.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Our 6 year old has always needed more sleep, and nothing I do will get him too sleep beyond 7am, but it's usually 6, wanting the day to start. Thus we now get him on bed for 5:30-6pm. I also don't think there is a strict correlation between gifted and sleep, once I read 20% of gifted children need less sleep and 20% need more, well that would make a normal bell curve. :-)

Anonymous said...

I have both my kids always wanting less sleep tgan us. Its hard, but I let them be. Most if the time letting them read books or reading to them helps. But they have always slept 2-3 hours less than average.

Anonymous said...

I have always tried to keep my kids on a set sleeping schedule but at around a year and a half my little one stopped taking naps and never wanted to sleep. Recently, at 2 1/2, it has gotten to the point that she sleeps between 4-9 hours a night, still without a nap during the day. It is exhausting at times since my husband and I both work. I have consulted with her doctor who says that, "some children just don't need as much sleep." I was told by a friend, who is a science teacher, that sometimes lack of sleep can be a marker for higher intelligence. I have just started to research this and she is only two so not sure how to tell. But glad to find it seems pretty common in little ones.

Anonymous said...

My 9 yr old gifted daughter never took naps after the first month of her life. getting her to sleep at night was exhausting. I could rock her to sleep one night, the next night she would refuse to be rocked. I could sing a song that put her to sleep and the next night she would throw a fit if I tried to sing the same song that she knew put her out the night before. She did not attempt to talk until she was a year old, but let us know things. Then suddenly one day she started talking using words we had to look up in the dictionary at times. We got so desperate on getting her to bed we tried melatonin. It worked 3 nights, then it stopped working. Some days she refuses to go to school, says her head hurts but seems fine after she would be counted absent anyway. They give the new work out on Monday and she knows it so she sees no point in going the other days until Friday for tests. She refuses to practice on her math. She keeps a B in math and 100 averages in all other subjects. She will not read a book she's read before. She was 2 years old when she told me one day she could read. I thought she had memorized the book. I made her read it backwards and she did with no problem. It's difficult to get her to shut down, when it takes something that didn't work before. Sometimes we find her awake at 1 or later on school nights. This works out fine for her for days she wants to go to school. If something special is going on, or it's Monday or Friday. Tue-Thur she says she's tired and sick. Asks why she has to go when they are just doing the same thing over and over.

Anna Murphy-Moore said...

Thanks for this comment. What age were you able to start this with your kids? I've been trying a similar technique with my 17 month old and I just can't get him to stay laying down on the bed for longer than a minute. I'm wondering if it is too much to expect at this point. Thanks.