What Happens When Your Child Doesn’t Get Enough Sleep?

There are so many good reasons to try to ensure that your child gets enough sleep that it’s not possible to list them all here.  But, does your child get enough rest? 

“If we make sure our children get enough sleep, it can help protect them from mental health problems,” says Bror M. Ranum, a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

A study of almost 800 children followed over several years shows that those who get the fewest hours of sleep are at greatest risk of developing psychiatric difficulties later, including ADHD, anxiety and depression.

“We’re seeing an association between sleep duration and a risk of symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders,” says Ranum, first author of a new article on children, sleep and risk of mental health disorders.

Boys who sleep fewer hours have an increased risk of developing behavioral issues. Both girls and boys who get less sleep are at greater risk for future emotional problems. The measurements do not indicate anything about the quality of sleep.

Children’s sleep was measured with motion sensors every night for a week. The researchers conducted clinical interviews to measure mental health difficulties. These procedures were repeated several times every two years.

The study also investigated whether psychological difficulties might cause children to sleep less. The data do not indicate this to be the case. Sleep duration influences the risk of later problems, not the opposite.

“Previous studies have also shown that sleep is related to mental health difficulties. But our study is one of the first to investigate this in children over several years, and to use an objective measurement of sleep,” says senior author Silje Steinsbekk at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Because people tend to be quite poor at reporting how much sleep they get, scientists cannot completely rely on people’s self-reported sleep duration data. Self-reported sleep duration does not correlate with objective sleep duration measurements. Laboratory studies measure sleep objectively, but this research study is measuring only the immediate effects and does not comment on whether sleep duration affects individuals’ psychiatric health over time.

“Our study shows that the children who sleep fewer hours than others more often develop psychiatric symptoms, even two years later,” says Steinsbekk.

Ranum emphasizes that big individual differences exist when it comes to how much sleep each child needs.

What amounts to too little sleep for one child may be more than enough for other kids. So parents shouldn’t worry unnecessarily either.

“But if you find that your child seems to be under the weather and can’t concentrate, or you notice their mood fluctuate more than normal, then you may want to help them get more sleep,” Ranum says.

He says it is difficult to give advice that fits for all families and all children. But having a consistent wake-up time in the morning is perhaps the most important way to develop healthy sleep habits.