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Stunted sleep: The truth about sleep deprivation in children

Sleep Deprivation In Children

Here at Siesto, we talk a lot about sleep and how it affects you — our wonderful community.

You know the dangers of sleep deprivation, and how even a few missed hours of beauty sleep each night can alter your mood, your behaviour, and even your health. 

However, the issues associated with missing sleep aren’t restricted to adults alone. As a grown up, you can search for the solutions to your sleep problems online and discuss issues with your doctor.

Children have a much harder time dealing with experiences of insomnia. 

That’s right. Children get sleep disorders too.

And sleep deprivation in children is more common than you might think.

If you’re a parent, then it’s your responsibility to make sure that your little one is getting the right amount of Z’s every day. Crucially, that means paying attention to your youngster’s behaviour, attitude, and health over time.

After all, your kid can’t articulate that they’re not getting enough REM, and they may not be able to explain why their anxiety is keeping them awake.

If you’re dealing with a child that isn’t getting the right quality or amount of sleep right now, don’t panic. We’re going to guide you through the process of recognising sleep deprivation in children, and what you can do about it.

The importance of sleep in child development

Let’s start simple.

What’s the connection between sleep deprivation and child development?

Is a sleep-deprived child more likely to have problems with their emotional and physical health than their well-rested counterpart?

The simple answer is yes. 

Every living creature needs sleep. During early development, sleep is particularly important for children, because it helps to build the crucial neural pathways that will support your child throughout the rest of their lives. 

During their early years, children generally need a lot more sleep. Newborns often sleep for more than 50% of the day, while most children spend around 40% of their childhood unconscious. During those periods, the brain is making critical connections and producing growth hormones that help your child to get big and strong. 

Unfortunately, most children don’t get enough sleep. And as we’ve already mentioned, sleep deprivation in children is surprisingly common. 

Social media, screen-related distractions, and even early school starting times have contributed to more than 50% of American children between the ages of 6 and 17 being severely sleep-deprived. If you’re wondering: “Does my child have sleep deprivation?” you’re not the only one. 

The growing issue with sleep deprivation in children is having a negative impact on their development.

A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2019 found that children who slept enough were 44% more likely than their counterparts to show curiosity in learning new skills.

The well-rested children were also 33% more likely to complete their homework.

It’s not just academic performance that suffers with child sleep deprivation either. Your child’s physical health suffers too, because they’re not getting the rest that they need to build healthy and strong immune systems. 

On top of that, sleep deprivation in children leads to more behavioural problems, more academic issues, and more risk-taking behaviours.

Children who don’t get enough sleep each night are more likely to suffer from common sleep disorders like sleepwalking, bedwetting, night terrors and nightmares. 

So, how do you avoid the issue of sleep deprived children?

The first step is understanding how much rest your child actually needs.

Guidelines to avoid child sleep deprivation

To encourage healthy development in your child’s brain and ensure that they’re less cranky when they wake up each morning, you need to help them get the right amount of sleep.

While everyone moves through the stages of sleep differently, you can follow a few basic guidelines to improve your child’s chances of a healthy slumber. 

The American Academic of Pediatrics has published a healthy set of guidelines for sleep and brain development. You can apply these rules to children of various ages to help them stay happy and healthy as they grow:

Newborns (0 to 3 months)
Avoiding sleep deprivation with newborns should be pretty easy. Children that have just been born are more likely to fall asleep naturally whenever they want to. They’re not going to force themselves to stay awake longer than necessary to watch another episode of Peppa Pig. The average newborn sleeps anywhere between 14 and 18 hours a day, with irregular periods of a few hours spent awake. 

Infants (4 to 11 months)
As your child continues to grow, their relationship with sleep will evolve. By six months, evening feedings become more essential, and many infants get to a point where they can sleep through the night. When children in the infant stage get put to bed when drowsy, they can learn to become “self-soothers”. This means that they find their own strategies to get to sleep independently without help. Other children may cry and try to get their parents to come and help them sleep. 

Toddlers (1 to 2 years)
Between the ages of 1 and 2, your child will still be sleeping a lot. Toddlers need around 11-14 hours of sleep each day. When they get to about 18 months, their nap-times will decrease, and they’ll sleep more regularly at night. Sometimes, toddlers can begin to experience sleep problems caused by nightmares. This can increase the risk of sleep deprivation in kids. 

Young children (3 to 5 years)
Between the ages of 3-5 years, your child will be sleeping around 11-13 hours a night — and shouldn’t be napping too much.

Difficulty falling asleep and waking up during the night are issues that can occur at this age. Additionally, as the imagination continues to develop, the risk of nightmares and night terrors can grow.

School-aged children (6 to 13 years)
Finally, in the ages between 6 and 13, your children will need around 11 hours of sleep. At this time, there’s a growing demand on your youngster’s attention. Your little one might be spending their free time on homework, school, social activities, and extracurricular events.

School-aged children also become more interested in technology and television. If you find that your child is becoming more reluctant to go to bed, this could be the start of the signs that your child isn’t sleeping enough. 

The older a child gets, the greater the risk of sleep deprivation in children becomes. Although sleep and brain development go hand in hand, the more your child’s mind develops, the greater their risk of nightmares and other disorders becomes.

At the same time, problems with sleep can lead to further issues in a child’s day-to-day life, including inability to pay attention in school, behavioural problems, and cognitive issues.

What does sleep deprivation do to kids?

If you’re wondering: “How does sleep affect a child’s behaviour?” then the answer is likely to be a lot more complex than you think. 

If a child has a lot of frequent emotional or physical problems, one of the most common causes is a lack of sleep. Every function in the human body is influenced by sleep. For a child, the impact is even greater, because youngsters are developing at a much faster pace than us adults. 

Research has proven that children with sleep disturbances are more likely to suffer from medical problems like allergies, infections, and common illnesses too.

Here are just some of the most common side effects of sleep deprivation in kids:

1. Increased risk of obesity and diabetes

You may already know that sleeplessness affects appetite. However, did you know that sleep deprivation in children could also increase your youngster’s risk of becoming obese? 

Researchers from the University of Chicago found that lack of sleep influences the levels of hormones in the body that regulate hunger. Sleep-deprived children often have lower levels of the hormone that makes them feel satisfied and full, and higher levels of the hormone that leaves them craving high-calorie foods. 

Many experts also believe that sleep deprivation in children can affect the way the body metabolizes sugar and triggers insulin resistance. This means that child sleep deprivation could lead to a higher risk of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

2. More mental health issues

Since we know that sleep and brain development are closely connected, it makes sense that sleep-deprived children would also have more issues with their mood. A lack of sleep in an adult can easily lead to emotional issues, by causing hyperactivity in the amygdala. That’s the part of your brain responsible for emotional regulation. 

In the same way, a sleep-deprived child is more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression because they’re unable to control their emotions properly. The less sleep that a child gets, the more dramatic and emotional they’ll become.

Insomnia is also a significant risk factor for stress in children because it raises the levels of cortisol in their system. Cortisol is the hormone that regulates stress levels, but it’s also closely connected to the sleep/wake cycle. 

If a more miserable child wasn’t worrisome enough, experts also believe that sleep-deprived kids are more likely to have academic problems at school too. Children who aren’t getting enough rest will struggle to pay attention in school.

We use sleep to turn short-term memories into long-term lessons. If your youngster isn’t getting the sleep that they need, then the lessons they learn each day may not be sinking in, which means that they won’t perform as well at school.

3. Developmental and physical issues

Finally, studies into the importance of sleep in child development suggest that the highest levels of crucial growth hormones are released into the human bloodstream during sleep.

Because sleep deprived children don’t get as much growth hormone into their system, things like height and growth could be affected by lost sleep too. However, more research is needed in this area

Aside from causing problems with growth hormones, sleep also affects immunity levels. During periods of sleep, the substance interleukin-1 is released into the system. Several nights of limited rest can hamper a child’s immunity levels.

This becomes even more problematic when you consider the fact that a sleep-deprived child is also more accident-prone.

Lack of sleep has an adverse effect on our motor skills, which means that sleep deprived children are often accidents waiting to happen.

Not only will your child be less able to fight off disease without sleep, but they could struggle to recover from the numerous injuries they become more likely to get too.

Signs your child isn’t sleeping enough

While the answer to “what percentage of children are sleep deprived?” differs depending on the age range you’re looking at, 90% of teens have trouble with their sleep. The effects of sleep deprivation in children are significant.

However, before parents can make a difference to their child’s quality of life, they’ll need to check the signs that their child isn’t sleeping enough.

While we all know the telltale signs of sleep deprivation in ourselves, from mood swings to bags under our eyes, it can be harder to see the same issues in your child or toddler. Here are a few red flags to look out for when checking for sleep deprivation in your youngster. 

They fall asleep at inappropriate times
It’s one thing to find yourself dozing off when you’re the passenger in a car, or you’re relaxing in front of the television.

However, if your child falls asleep at church or in class, then there’s a good chance that they’re not getting the rest that they need. Take a look at how many naps your little one takes each day, and whether the number is appropriate to their age.

They sleep more on weekends
While many of us have a bad habit of allowing ourselves to sleep in on weekends, this can actually be bad for your sleep hygiene.

Both children and adults need to be waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day to maintain a good routine. If your kids are sleeping more on the weekend, that’s a sign that something is out of whack. 

Their behaviour is more erratic
We often expect sleep-deprived children to act poorly, by being grumpy or acting out. However, some children become more entertaining when they’re sleep-deprived. That’s because the brain becomes less inhibited when it’s tired.

If your children are suddenly more silly and goofy than usual, it’s time to look at their sleep schedule. 

Waking them up is very difficult
We all have days when we’re reluctant to get out of bed. However, if it’s incredibly challenging to get your youngster up each morning, this could be a sign that you’re dealing with a sleep-deprived child. You shouldn’t have to battle with your kid to get them to wake up. Consider getting kids to go to bed a bit earlier if you’re always having arguments when the alarms go off. 

Their mood changes
Sleep-deprived children are more likely to have sudden swings between being cranky and happy. You might find that your little one is more withdrawn than usual, or that they’re throwing more tantrums than normal. If that’s the case, then it could be time to evaluate their sleep schedule and figure out whether it’s time for a change.

Ways to help your sleep-deprived child

Once you’ve seen the signs of sleep deprivation in your kids, the next step is figuring out how to help them. Finding the right strategy to eradicate bad sleeping habits and replace them with good ones isn’t always easy. It could take some time before you find the routine that turns your kids into the best, most creative versions of themselves

The good news?

Improving a child’s sleep routine is very similar to making positive changes to an adult’s sleep hygiene. 

You can follow many of the same basic steps, including:

Developing a reliable schedule
Babies, children, and even some adults thrive better when they work according to a routine. Maintaining a regular schedule for everything from nap times to bedtimes is an important part of maintaining healthy sleep in early childhood.

With consistent sleeping times, your little one will know what to expect. His or her brain will get used to shutting down at a specific time. 

Design the right environment: We all need a comfortable and reliable environment where we can sleep peacefully each night. Make sure that your child’s bedroom is dark and cool. Don’t get carried away with too many stuffed animals and bright colours. Stick to soothing shades for the walls, and soft, breathable materials. 

Create a bedtime routine
As well as putting your child to sleep at the same time each night, try to help them maintain a consistent routine. Many parents develop a routine out of things like taking a bath, brushing hair and teeth and reading a book before bed. This schedule will evolve naturally as your child grows up. 

Avoid naps at the wrong times
While daytime naps can be useful to children in the early years of their development, they need to be planned properly. Naps can help your child to stay focused throughout the day. However, you should avoid letting your child sleep too soon to their allocated bedtime. 

Play throughout the day
If you want your child to sleep well during the night, then one of the best things you can do is wear them out during the day. The American Pediatric Academy recommends playing and talking with babies and children during the day. The less they snooze during the day, the more they’ll sleep at night. 

While avoiding a sleep deprived child is important, it isn’t always easy. Young children are still learning what it takes to get a good night’s sleep. It’s important for parents to show understanding when their children turn up in their bedroom in the middle of the night, unable to sleep.

Remember, you’re going to need to be patient with both yourself and your child when you’re trying to improve your youngster’s sleeping habits.

Can lack of sleep stunt a child’s growth?

Although research is still ongoing into whether lack of sleep can really stop your child from growing to his or her full potential — the dangers are evident.

Sleep and brain development go hand-in-hand, as do rest and proper physical development. That means that if you have a sleep-deprived child, you’re more likely to deal with things like poor emotional and physical health. 

While it’s hard to predict how sleeplessness will have an effect on your child, the best thing any parent can do is take steps to reduce the risk of sleep deprivation as much as possible.

Not only will this help you to stay away from the headaches of a groggy and cranky child, but it will also ensure that you develop positive routines for your youngster’s future.

Use the tips above to guide you and remember that you should always seek a doctor’s advice if you’re concerned about the amount of sleep that your children are getting.

If you suspect that your little one might have a sleep problem that’s interfering with their ability to rest and recuperate each night, it’s crucial to seek help as quickly as possible. 

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

Medical disclaimer
You must not rely on the information provided on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other healthcare professionals. For more information read our full disclaimer here.

Medical Expert

Siestio is an evidence-based resource dedicated to sleep and wellbeing. Whether you’re affected directly or indirectly by sleep issues, we’re here to help. Because we believe sleep matters.

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