Most of us know that getting enough sleep helps us stay mentally and emotionally healthy as well as physically fit. Mental Health Canada says that getting the right amount of sleep is just as important as having enough food and water.

According to the organization’s website, we progress from needing about 16 hours of sleep each day as infants, to needing an average of nine as teenagers to needing seven to eight hours as midlife adults (although this can shorten and expand from five to 10 hours, depending on the individual).

Pregnant women, during the first trimester, need extra hours, while about half of all elder adults struggle to get to sleep, to stay asleep through the night and to achieve the most-restorative stages of deep sleep. Even so, for many of us, actually planning our sleeping routines may seem strange. Sleeping is “natural,” we think, so why would we need to schedule it?

According to Douglas Mental Health University Institute1, fully one-quarter of all Canadians are short on sleep, with up to 70 per cent of our students dozy during morning classes. Many elementary school children are going to bed too late, and almost half of teens aged 14 to 18 are seriously sleep deprived.

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The Medical News reports that, on average, Americans have lost a full hour of nightly sleep in the last four decades. And night-shift workers tend to sleep for five to seven hours less per week than those who work during the day, reports the Canada Centre for Occupational Health and Safety2.

There’s a big cost: chronic sleep deprivation of even a few hours a night can take a serious toll – decreasing our mental, emotional and physical fitness and increasing our risk for illness and accidents. And – while it may be surprising – chronic over-sleeping is associated with health risks, too.

Ok, so now we’re educated and motivated, but how does each of us determine what constitutes a good night’s sleep? The short answer: Once you’ve achieved just the right amount of sleep, the Better Sleep Council of Canada says, you will awaken on your own, without needing an alarm clock. The long answer: To determine your optimal duration of sleep, consider the details.

Finding yourself commonly fatigued and drowsy during the day, having difficulty concentrating and becoming easily irritated and frustrated are all clues that you are short on sleep, as is regularly falling asleep within five minutes of getting into bed at night (ideally, you fall asleep about 15 to 20 minutes after getting into bed). If you’re sleeping too much each night, too often, you may awaken with a headache, unrefreshed and feeling hungover.

To get a better picture of your sleep patterns, Better Sleep Council Canada offers a sleep test, while the Canadian Sleep Society suggests keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks (find a sample diary page at You can use these tools for your own information or fill them out and take them to your physician. If you commonly sleep for more than eight hours a night, let your doctor know. Check how close you are to the average for your age group, or how much you deviate, then shorten or lengthen your night’s sleep toward that average for a few weeks to test what works best for your overall functioning.

Once you’ve found your optimal sleep hours, try to stick to the same going-to-bed and getting-up times. A regular regimen helps you fall asleep reliably and awaken refreshed. If you occasionally have a few late nights during a week and want to catch up on sleep weekend mornings, don’t extend your waking time beyond two hours; if you sleep in much longer, you may have to “reset” your sleep schedule. And a tip from the National Sleep Foundation: Place a nightlight in the hall so, if you awaken partway through the night needing the bathroom, you can navigate safely without exposure to bright light that may make getting back to sleep more difficult.

According to Statistics Canada, women who work full time do sleep slightly longer than men, but they tend to be lighter sleepers and have more fragmented sleep. Since working women often do most of the domestic and child-caring work at home, as well, they are subject to stresses that may aggravate disturbed sleeping patterns.

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