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Your child’s mental health: Why does sleep matter?

When you think of a toddler who missed a nap, what do you picture? Crying, tantrums, meltdowns. What about a teenager who stayed up past midnight and then woke up for school before the sun rose? You’d prepare for a day of irritability and mood swings beyond the typical “teenage angst.” 

Clearly, inadequate sleep impacts mood and behavior. While a night or two of poor sleep may simply lead to problems the next day, chronic sleep deprivation can actually increase the risk of mental health problems in children and adolescents. Research has found persistent sleep problems in preschool and school-aged children increases the risk of developing anxiety and depression as teenagers and adults.

Despite most families knowing the importance of sleep for overall health, according to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 30 percent of children and 75 percent of teenagers do not get enough sleep! Children's developing brains are especially sensitive to inadequate sleep. Sleep deprivation can result in mood/behavior problems, and for children who already struggle with mental health problems, inadequate sleep can make symptoms even worse.

Parents and health care providers should consider whether sleep might be a contributing factor when they see the following problems:

Mood. Poor sleep can cause your child to feel irritable or cranky and get frustrated easily. If your child is talking back more than usual and easily upset, consider whether they have missed a couple of hours of sleep the past few nights. Teenagers with depression also often experience problems falling or staying asleep. These sleep problems may make depressed teens feel even more lethargic, which can exacerbate feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Severe sleep deprivation can even increase the risk for suicidal thoughts in individuals with major depressive disorder, which highlights the importance of addressing sleep in mental health treatment. Behavior. Although teenagers and adults are typically sluggish and inactive when they are tired, children may actually be more hyperactive and impulsive. In fact, inadequate sleep can produce symptoms that look very similar to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sleepy children may have trouble sitting still or difficulty concentrating. They may also struggle to stay on task and make decisions. It is easy for health professionals to make a misdiagnosis of ADHD when symptoms are actually a result of chronic sleep deprivation.

Anxiety. As many adults know from experience, loss of sleep can increase stress. Sleep deprived children may have an even harder time regulating their emotions when they are stressed or anxious. For children who already struggle with anxiety, poor sleep may actually exacerbate their worries. Similar to the vicious cycle seen in adults with insomnia, anxious children may worry about being able to fall asleep, which increases the amount of time it takes to actually fall asleep, resulting in decreased overall sleep at night and increased anxiety the next day.

In sum, sleep plays an important role in regulating mood, emotions, and behavior and signs of sleep deprivation can look similar to mental health problems.

So how much sleep does your child need? Everyone is different, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends 10 to 13 hours for preschoolers, nine to 11 hours for school-aged children and eight to 10 hours for teens. You can help improve your child’s sleep by teaching them to:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule (go to bed and wake up around the same time every day—including weekends!)
  • Engage in a consistent bedtime routine
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Turn off electronics and avoid stimulating activities in the evening
  • Set up a soothing sleep environment

For more information on healthy sleep habits, visit the National Sleep Foundation website.

Michelle Clementi, psychology extern