If I posted a video of my daughter when she is sleep-deprived and trying to finish her homework or clean her room—or do anything, really, that she doesn't want to do—I would lose all credibility as a parenting expert. This is because there is a good chance you would all witness her shockingly bad behavior, from bratty-voice screaming to head-on-the-desk, teary, fist pounding protests.
We humans don't really function all that well when we are seriously tired, and that is especially true for little humans whose brains are not yet fully developed. As Arianna Huffington writes in this post, sleep might just be the key to our happiness and peak performance.
Nothing could be more true for children.
Kids need a lot of sleep to be happy. Unfortunately, studies show that kids are getting significantly less sleep per night than they did in previous generations. This is of no small consequence.
Sleep deprivation—or just getting slightly less sleep than they need—affects kids' functioning and well-being in a huge range of ways. Not getting enough sleep can make kids:
- Less smart. In one study, researchers restricted the sleep of some students and extended the sleep of others for about 40 minutes over just three days. Kids who got less sleep showed worse performance in areas like learning, memory, and reaction times. How much worse? The difference between the two groups was "larger than or similar to the highly significant age differences between the fourth- and sixth-grade students" in the study. Losing two hours of sleep over three days set kids back two years.
- Inattentive. Sleepiness makes it hard for kids to pay attention, whether to their school work or to their parents. The effects of not getting enough sleep is much more evident in younger children, who tend to be quite distractible when tired.
- Fat. Sleep affects dozens of physiological and hormonal processes throughout our bodies, like how we store fat and burn calories. Kids who are "short sleepers" are more likely not just to be fat, but to actually be obese.
- Less creative. Sleep helps kids with verbal flexibility so that their speech is more articulate and creative. Decreased sleep can make them less fluent, and it can impair their thinking in ways that make them less imaginative and less able to problem solve.
- Moody and ill-behaved. I think this is obvious to every parent of every child who has ever missed a nap, but loads of good research backs this up: not getting enough sleep can make five year olds act like three year olds—miserable three year olds, to boot. Substance use, including using caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, is greater in teens who sleep less, indicating that they are trying to cope with how they feel when tired.
Bad behavior often comes from the fact that sleepiness makes it hard for kids to control their impulses. Given my interest in Raising Happiness , I think this is the most important consequence that not getting my kids into bed on time can have. Why be awake if we are likely to be crabby and unhappy until we get more sleep?
In future posts, I'll dig a little deeper into the sleep research in order to give parents some good guidelines about sleep and their children's happiness. I'll address questions such as: How much sleep do kids need at different ages? Does messing up weekend sleep matter—can we let our kids stay up late once or twice a week without suffering the consequences? Can students make up for lost sleep on the weekends? What does research show we can do to help our kids fall asleep faster and to sleep better?
Helping our kids get more sleep can have tremendous positive effects. Because of this, I have recently moved my kids' bedtime to a shockingly-early 7:30 pm (they are 7 and 9 years old, and they catch the bus at 7:50 in the morning). This means that I am trading quality bonding time with my children for sleep. But, given the profound effects sleep has on their health and happiness, I don't think I have a choice: ensuring that my kids get enough sleep is my responsibility as a parent.
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How did you transition to the 7:30pm bedtime? We find an 8:30pm bedtime just barely possible and the kids (6 and 4) are often still playing, reading, messing around until 9:30pm or later. We start waking them at 6:30am for an 8:30am (latest) departure.
Jason Harrison | 11:13 pm, January 28, 2010 | Link
I think this is a great post! I have no problem getting my 4 and 6 year old to bed between 7:30 and 8:00, however they wake up on their own at 5:45 in the morning. I can’t figure out how to get them to sleep in and it is evident that they could definitely use another hour of sleep! Any suggestions?
Kelly Iannacone | 7:00 am, January 29, 2010 | Link
Excellent and so true. My kids have always been good sleepers, and at age 8 they go to bed at 7:30. It makes a huge difference in their lives. When chatting with other parents and the subject of bedtime comes up and I tell them when my kids go to bed the response is often that their kids would never go to bed that early. Kids will – sleep begets sleep. They truly are happier when rested. Now, getting my 16 year old to sleep is another issue. He may fight going to bed – 10:30 on a school night, but he sleeps and needs it. Many high schools are trying to figure out ways to start a little later, as studies show kids don’t function well early in the morning and without enough sleep. One of my goals for this year is to get more sleep, and I have been doing so and feel much better!
Alexandra Davidson.M | 9:19 am, January 29, 2010 | Link
I’m so glad to see this concept of sleep as a basic human need catching on. I have been a parent educator trying to convince people of the importance of sleep for over five years now. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has written an excellent book about sleep titled “Sleepless in America: Are your kids misbehaving or missing sleep?”
As a response to the comment of how to change, look at what you’re doing. Record your current schedule and see if there is something that can be removed or condensed or switched (sometimes baths can rev a child’s engines and might do better in the morning or late afternoon), before just trying to change and finding it doesn’t work for you. A good schedule can help take some chaos out of the day. Good luck!
Sally W | 11:54 am, January 29, 2010 | Link
We’ve had our 9 month old in his crib from about 7:15pm to 7:15am every night since he was about 12 weeks old. He recently started skipping his morning nap, but seems to be compensating by sleeping until 8:00am. I do best on at least 9 hours of sleep, so I’ve been a little obsessed about making sure he receives plenty. I think that we as parents have a lot more control over sleeping than we think – and consistency is the key. He knows that no matter how much he protests, he’ll be comforted, have all his needs attended to, but will be placed back in the crib until its time to get up. He knows that I’ll change a poopy diaper at 5:00am, but I won’t play with him. While this required a lot of time committed by us in the beginning, it paid off in the end. He has gone through periods of early waking, but he’s learned to hang out and play in his crib, which often leads to him falling back asleep. Kelly – a big help for us was taping heavy duty black plastic over the windows and under the blinds in his room. If your child is at all sensitive to noise, a white noise machine helps too.
Allison | 12:39 pm, January 29, 2010 | Link
I wish some people would take sleep more seriously, especially for teenagers. My high school started ridiculously early, and school bus route was so inefficient that it actually came to my house before 6 a.m. To get 9 hours of sleep, I’d need a bed time of 8 p.m.! I always tried to go to bed early, but it was always impossible to fall asleep, no matter how many consecutive nights I tried going to bed early. I would just lay in bed for hours.
As Alexandra said, some high schools are reasonable and trying to make things better, but unfortunately, my high school wasn’t one of the reasonable ones.
catgirl | 12:43 pm, January 29, 2010 | Link
There is no question that my teens have an improved attitude and improved attention span when they are allowed to follow their internal clocks more closely. Home Education and Virtual Education has allowed for more customization of our kids schedules…allowing for a better sleep plan.
Lori Beverage | 4:47 pm, January 31, 2010 | Link
We started reading about the brain function and sleep studies a few years ago and have never really transitioned OUT of our daughter getting around 11 hours of sleep a night. She’s in bed by 7:30 and up at 6:30 (sometimes a bit earlier) on her own.
When she goes to Grandma & Grandpa’s for a visit there is always a repercussion because they just don’t WANT to make her go to sleep – needless to say, we mostly only let her do that in the Summertime.
We have always had a routine that goes dinner at 5:30, talking about our day, bath time, jammies, reading books, lights out, snuggle time. We get good solid time together. No TV, No video games or computer. Our daughter is top of her class in just about every category and I have no doubts that diet, rest and movement are all a solid part of that.
As a teacher of Art Enrichment Classes in the East Bay I wish that more families were aware of the importance of solid sleep!
Good stuff, Christine! Nice piece on CH 7, btw!
julee Herrmann | 8:53 pm, February 1, 2010 | Link
For me, Marc Weissbluth’s “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” was incredibly helpful. It outlines sleep needs by age and gives very practical (and flexible) advice about how to get your child to get the sleep s/he needs.
Even though I’m a single parent who works full-time and it is very tempting to want to keep my child up at night to have more time together, I know that a lot of sleep is what she needs to function well each day. She’s almost 7 and we eat as early as possible, then do bath, jammies, books, snuggle and chat routine so we’re in her room by 7pm reading books in her bed. Most nights she’s asleep by 7:30pm. It is tough to keep the schedule but it pays off because she’s a happy, focused kid when she gets 11 hours of sleep. Even after a few days with under 10 hours of sleep it will be obvious in her behavior changes.
Cathy | 11:16 pm, February 10, 2010 | Link