Tiredness to tantrums – What happens when our kids don’t sleep well?

Time and again, studies are showing that our kids are just not getting the sleep they require leading to a hoard of overtiredness issues.

With some 30-40% of children under the age of 11 (and more in older teens) are not sleeping enough, you are not alone if you are worried about your child’s sleep related health.

Shockingly, British children are the most sleep-deprived in Europe (2011 study by TIMSS). If we are to improve on this, it is important to understand the affects of poor sleep in our kids.

What effect can tiredness have on children?

From minor grumpiness to full-blown mood swings, tiredness will affect our children one way or another. Chronic overtiredness can be incredibly unhealthy, according to Stephen Grant, MD “Today’s children are notoriously sleep-deprived”.

In Young Children

This increases dependency on mum and dad, resulting in clingy kids. They may act fidgety with increased activity, crashing out for power naps in the back of cars or wherever possible. Responses will be slow and they may become defiant, seemingly for the sake of it.

In Primary School Children

Tiredness can manifest as hyperactivity, a shortened attention span and a lack of interest or motivation. School will be a struggle as they get drowsy in class, struggling with homework and falling behind.

Children at this age can seem anxious, often not wanting to go to school or be separated from you. This unfortunately includes night time, as you may already know if they are hopping in your bed in the early hours. At this age, they may start to have bad dreams and sleepwalk if they are sleep-deprived.

In the Early Teenage Years

Teenagers can have a greater struggle waking up in the morning, often being late for school with a lack of motivation. The expected teenage mood-swings will increase to a troubling level and irritability, aggression or hyperactivity takes over.

Troublingly, this can lead to risk-taking behaviour and unhealthy habits such as caffeine, drug or alcohol use. Sleep-related mental health risks are significantly higher in teenagers.

Mental Health

Many of the problems listed above can be detrimental to the mental health of children at any age. Studies have shown that some 90% of children with a mental health disorder also suffer from sleep problems. One of the results of this is a vicious cycle where anxiety, depression and other issues make sleep more difficult to come by. When a child is sleep-deprived they will struggle even more to get relaxed in bed as the pressure to fall asleep makes it impossible.

ADHD is a condition many children are diagnosed with in the UK, but the symptoms of this frequently mirror the symptoms of overtiredness. There are a surprising number of cases of children diagnosed with this disorder who ended up actually having sleeplessness as the source of their erratic behaviour. This is demonstrative of the vast impact overtiredness can have on our kids.

As a parent, it can be incredibly hard to think that your child is suffering. Making changes to their sleep routine and supporting with this can be a great first step in lifting their mood.

Lack of sleep and weight problems in children

There is a strong statistical link between not getting enough sleep and being overweight. This is particularly important to combat in children as unhealthy habits can spread to adulthood, so it may be good to know why they are associated.

It is no wonder childhood sleep-deprivation and childhood obesity both at an all time high according to Dr Cindy Gellner who writes – “Tired children may tend to eat more because of an increase in the hormone that causes hunger and a decrease in the hormone which reduces hunger.”

Tiredness causes a particular craving for high fat and sugar foods. Paired with decreased energy to exercise as well as simply having more hours in the day to snack, the chances of weight gain drastically increased.

How much sleep to they really need?

Research and opinions about the necessary hours of sleep for children is are still being formed. Average figures across a number of sources are as follows:

1-3 years: 12-14 hours
3-6 years: 10-12 hours
7-12 years: 9-11 hours
13-18 years: 8-10 hours

Top Tips for helping your child get more sleep

That sneaky snooze in the back of the car can be a big culprit for why your child struggles to shut off at night. A few minutes here or there may not seem like a big deal, but they can play havoc on sleeping patterns. Try to limit this.

Make a routine out of bedtime and don’t deviate from this on school nights. A surprise late night can set sleep cycles out of balance, so it is best to stick to an agreed routine as far as possible. Your child will adjust to the pattern and associate steps of the routine with sleep.

Talk to your child about why sleep is so important for their brain and body. Kids want to be brighter, stronger and smarter. Knowing that sleep will improve how they think and function, put in terms understandable to your child, might just resonate with your little one.

Limit late-night sugar. Your child might be craving ice cream before bed, but their sleep pattern is not! We all love sweet treats, just make sure there is a good amount of time between indulging and hopping into bed.

Swap TVs and tablets for activities that involve hand-eye coordination. Your child may be reaching for their ipad, but it is well known that screen light delays the release of sleepy hormones. Playing with lego, drawing and other activities will help your child to relax and wind down for bed.

If you suspect that the cause of your child’s restlessness might be a mental health issue (or vice versa) don’t be afraid to seek help. Seeing a child psychologist may seem like a big step, so in the early stages be sure to inform your child’s teachers. Most schools should have pastoral care which can support both you and your child.

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