Lack of Sleep and Behavior Issues in Children

By Rachel Pancare
Adequate sleep positively affects a child's behavior.
Adequate sleep positively affects a child's behavior.

Lack of sleep can directly affect a child's behavior. In his article "Back to School, Back to Sleep," clinical psychologist and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, Michael J. Breus, writes, "It is not widely recognized and appreciated just how pervasive and critical quality sleep is for brain development and how it directly influences daytime functioning, performance, mood and behavior." Children who are well rested tend to feel more stable and are better able to manage their emotions. Staying on top of your child's sleep schedule can help you change the way your child feels on a day-to-day basis and will improve his interactions with others.

Sleep Needs

According to the National Sleep Foundation, "Sleep is especially important for children as it directly impacts mental and physical development." The Foundation reports that newborns, 1 to 2 months old, typically need a total of 10 1/2 to 18 hours a day on an irregular schedule. Infants between 3 and 11 months old should sleep about nine to 12 hours at night and take 30-minute to two-hour naps a few times during the day. Gradually time asleep can decrease as a child ages. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following guidelines -- ages 1 to 3 need 12 to 14 hours, ages 3 to 5 need 10 to 11 hours, ages 13 to 18 need about 8 1/2 to 9 hours of sleep.

Lack of Focus and Impatience

Sleepiness can hurt a child's ability to focus and may affect his patience level as well. When children are not well-rested, they are more easily distracted and may have trouble concentrating on tasks that are expected of them. Following rules and directions becomes more challenging. In addition, they may lose patience with people or activities more quickly and become frustrated more often. For example, he may have trouble waiting for a turn on a swing at recess or may have difficulty tolerating a younger sibling.

Irritability and Sensitivity

Children who are not getting enough sleep are often more irritable and sensitive. A sleepy child may exhibit a sharper temper, and small disagreements with friends or parents that would normally have simple solutions may result in larger, more out-of-control arguments. A child who has not had adequate rest may become oversensitive. For instance, she may get more upset when a friend teases her. She may be more likely to have hurt feelings and may cry, yell or become physically aggressive over simple disappointments or embarrassments.


Sleepiness may lead to poor health choices.
Sleepiness may lead to poor health choices.

A Centers for Disease Control study conducted in 2007 as part of the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggested that sleep-deprived teens are more likely to engage in rebellious behavior. In her article "Lack of Sleep for Teens Linked to Risky Behavior," Jennifer Warner writes, "Teenagers who don't get enough sleep on school nights may be more likely to take risks with their health." Lack of rest may lead to poor decision-making skills and an inability to think clearly about actions. They may have trouble considering the consequences of risky behavior and may be more susceptible to peer pressure. For example, they may be more likely to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.


The good news is, parents can help their children get more rest. Establish a solid bedtime routine. For younger children, that may include a bath, a glass of milk or water and a relaxing story. Find things that help your child fall asleep and stay asleep more easily -- a security blanket, blackout curtains or a sound machine. Avoid sugar and television before bedtime. All children exhibit poor behavior on occasion, but remember that adequate sleep will help your child feel happier and more in control.

About the Author

Rachel Pancare taught elementary school for seven years before moving into the K-12 publishing industry. Pancare holds a Master of Science in childhood education from Bank Street College and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Skidmore College.