The connection between sleep and children's behavior isn't talked about enough. If you don't get enough sleep, you can't focus! As adults, we know what it is like to be so tired we can't think straight. We have the luxury of being about to grab some caffeine, alter our work schedule, or pop a B12, but kids often aren't even aware that sleep is causing brain fog, attention problems, and crabbiness.
Sleep is needed for many processes, but it is vital for our brain and body to power down to work at optimal levels. A healthy level of sleep is needed for neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt when learning or to experiencing things. When we sleep too little, our learning, memory, and attention become labored, and our reflexes slow, so we can't physically respond quickly.
Why Is Sleep Important for Children and Teens?
Sufficient sleep plays an important role in emotional well-being. The brain processes and evaluates emotions during sleep, especially during REM. With less sleep, people are more likely to experience negative emotions. This is a risk factor for mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts or behavioral problems.
During sleep, our brain activity goes up and down in a sleep cycle of different stages. The first stage, NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, is when our overall brain activity slows down. But we have quick bursts of energy during this stage. The second stage, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, is when our brain activity speeds up again. This is the stage where we have intense dreams.
The stages of sleep play an essential role in brain function and health. By allowing different brain parts to ramp up or down during sleep, we can think more clearly, learn more effectively, and remember information better. Additionally, previous studies have shown that brain activity during sleep can profoundly impact our emotional control and mental well-being.
How Much Sleep Do Children and Teens Need?
Most adults and kids aren't getting enough sleep. In our busy world, we think we can shortchange our sleep and push along, but our body and brain will tell us otherwise. So how many hours of sleep does a child need? You need to make sure your child's sleep duration is optimal.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends the following amounts of sleep, based on age group:
- 4 to 12 months — 12 to 16 hours
- 1 to 2 years of age — 11 to 14 hours
- 3 to 5 years of age — 10 to 13 hours
- 6 to 12 years of age — 9 to 12 hours
- 13 to 18 years of age — 8 to 10 hours
What Happens When Children and Teens Don't Get Enough Sleep?
When kids don't get enough sleep, they break down physically, behaviorally, and mentally. When we don't sleep, we are more apt to be cranky, have lower stress tolerance, and it is just harder to get stuff done. Kids aren't any different, and they experience the same.
We seem to be very tolerant of a sleep-deprived toddler transitioning away from their nap, but we lack the same patience with teens. When your child or teen struggles with mental health, behavior, or attention, you always want to look at their sleep.
Sleep deprived kids can look like they have ADHD. When kids get a low amount of sleep, they can display attention issues that can create a need for long term health care and school problems. According to The Academy of Sleep Medicine, “Short sleep duration may contribute to the development or worsening of hyperactivity and inattention during early childhood.”
Sleep expert, Kim West, MSW also known as The Sleep Lady, notes, “The research is pretty clear that when kids are sleep deprived, you will see decreased attention, impulse control, and interest in learning, as well as increased irritability and with younger children bladder accidents.”
The following issues can result from sleep deprivation:
- Behavioral issues
- Sensory sensitivity
- Learning and memory issues
- Attention and executive functions
- Low energy or motivation and fatigue
- Mood, anxiety and mental health issues
- Weakened immune system
- Improper detoxification
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Hormone dysregulation
- Obesity and diabetes
What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation in Children and Teens
Kids aren't always aware that they aren't getting enough sleep but they will show it behaviorally. Here are physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms of children of insufficient sleep.
Physical symptoms of sleep deprivation in children
- Difficulty waking in the morning
- Falling asleep after being woken up and you have to wake them again or repeatedly
- Chronic fatigue during the day
- Asking to rest or lay down during the day without physical exertion
- Frequent yawning during the day
- Falling asleep or seeming drowsy at school or while doing homework
- Carbohydrate craving or wanting caffeine-based stimulants
- Frequent colds and infection
- Blurred vision
- Weight gain
- Change in appetite
Cognitive symptoms of sleep deprivation in children
- Memory difficulties
- Slowed processing
- Word retrieval problems
- Problems learning new information, especially complex
- Difficulty following directions
- Lacking interest, motivation and attention for everyday tasks
Behavioral symptoms of sleep deprivation in children
- Increased moodiness and irritability
- Increased impulsivity
- Increased emotionality or tantrums
- Avoidant behaviors
- Slurred words
What Are Types of Sleep Problems in Children and Teens?
Some children have problems settling for sleep, and others have issues that interfere with their ability to sleep. Here are issues and sleep disorders that cause sleep disturbances in children.
- Night Terrors – Occurs in non-REM sleep and are episodes of fear, screaming, and flailing while still asleep.
- Nightmares – Occurs in REM sleep and are frightening nocturnal episodes
- Sleep Talking and Sleepwalking – Is a disorder that originates in deep sleep and results in walking or other complex behavior.
- Insomnia – Trouble falling or staying asleep.
- Snoring and Sleep Apnea – A sleep disorder where your breathing is repeatedly interrupted.
- Nighttime Seizures – Seizures can occur at any time but they do frequently occur at night. Look for signs such as tongue biting and wetting the bed.
- Restless Leg Syndrome – Is a disorder that causes involuntary leg movements and associated with unpleasant sensations
- Night Waking – Waking up in the middle of the night. If you can't go back to sleep immediately, it may affect your quality of rest. May be caused by other conditions such as arthritis, which cause pain.
- Restless Legs Syndrome – A disorder that causes involuntary leg movements and is associated with unpleasant sensations.
Why do Children and Teens Have Sleep Problems?
Children and teens can have sleep issues for a variety of reasons, but there are more common ones.
- Medication Side Effects
- Blood Sugar Issues
- Night Terrors and Nightmares
- Sleep Talking and Walking
- Snoring and Sleep Apnea
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Nighttime Seizures
- Mental Health Issues
Screen exposure when school-aged children are still using social media or playing video games at night may stimulate the brain and get in the way of quality sleep. A new study finds that the use of video games decreases sleep by as much as 44 minutes per day and may affect your children’s health.
Is It ADHD or a Sleep Disorder?
The symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and sleep disorder behaviorally overlap and that means many kids with a sleep disorder get misdiagnosed with ADHD. Children and teens with ADHD or a sleep disorder can experience similar symptoms including difficulty focusing, fatigue, low motivation, poor impulse control, trouble completing tasks, problems listening, and memory difficulties.
Children with inadequate sleep may have difficulty settling for sleep or staying asleep, but so can kids who are on stimulant medications. These kids may have a history of trauma, anxiety, OCD, depression, or some other clinical issue that causes their mind to race and therefore have trouble settling for bed.
Physical issues such as sleep apnea should also be considered. Children with these issues snore or make noises when they sleep, which indicates obstructed breathing. Checking in with an ENT physician, medical center or children's hospital should be a priority and a sleep study might be necessary.
Sleep Hygiene Tips for Children and Teens
Without healthy sleep patterns, regulating mood presents a challenge. Poor sleep results when you don't have the right sleep habits that interfere with getting to sleep or sleeping through the night.
Even when kids don't develop healthy sleep habits in their early years, you can always use these sleep hacks to improve sleep duration and quality. Prioritizing good sleep is important and parents can benefit from these rest tips too.
Here are some of the best ways to promote sleep:
Curate a sleep-inducing bedroom. Make your bedroom a place of comfort and relaxation. Focus on maximizing comfort and minimizing distractions, including these tips:
- Optimizing your sleep schedule
- Set a pre-bedtime routine
- Fostering pro-sleep habits during the day
- Treat yourself to a high-quality mattress and pillow
- Select quality bedding
- Avoid light disruption
- Create a peaceful ambiance
- Set your room to an agreeable temperature
- Introduce pleasant aromas with essential oils
Optimize your sleep schedule
There are many benefits to taking control of your daily sleep schedule. By implementing some simple strategies, you can get better sleep and improve your overall health. Try these four tips to get started:
- Set a fixed wake-up time
- Allot time for sleep
- Don't nap too much
- Adjust your schedule gradually
While it is best to try to adhere to a sleep schedule, don’t feel bad if you have to stay up late here and there for a fun activity.
Craft a pre-bed routine
It's common to believe that the problem of falling asleep starts when you're in bed. However, what happens before you go to bed is very important in preparing you to fall asleep quickly and easily.
How you spend your time before bed can greatly impact the quality of your sleep. If you're trying to improve your sleep habits, consider changing your pre-bed routine. Taking the time to wind down before bed can pay off by helping you fall asleep more easily and get a better night's rest.
Poor pre-bed habits can make it difficult to fall asleep and get a good night's rest. However, by making some changes to your routine, you can improve your sleep quality and feel more relaxed at bedtime. It may take time and effort to break old habits, but it will be worth it in the end!
Creating a bedtime routine is important to signal to your mind and body that it is time to wind down for the night. Incorporating these three tips into your routine will help reinforce healthy habits and ensure a good night's sleep:
- Relax for at least 30 minutes
- Dim the lights
- Disconnect from devices
Foster pro-sleep habits during the day.
Good sleep starts with good habits during the day. A few simple steps can significantly affect how well you sleep at night.
- See the light of the day
- Monitor your caffeine
- Be mindful of alcohol
- Don't eat too late
- Don't smoke
- Remove clutter from your bed, and don't do any work in the bedroom.
- Try relaxation techniques
- Keep a sleep diary
- Talk with a doctor if you need more help
Sleep and its connection to focus is a topic we just aren’t talking enough about. If you feel overwhelmed by where to start, just start with adjusting your sleep schedule slowly. Concentrate on a sleep routine that works for your child and family,
Bhargava S. (2011). Diagnosis and management of common sleep problems in children. Pediatrics in review, 32(3), 91–99. https://doi.org/10.1542/pir.32-3-91
West, Kim (2022). https://sleeplady.com/
Sleep Foundation (March 11, 2022). Children and Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.
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