How Sugar Affects Attention in Small Kids

By Darlene Peer
Young children are more sugar-sensitive than adults.
Young children are more sugar-sensitive than adults.

Whether large amounts of refined sugar can negatively impact children's behavior and attention spans is controversial among parents, as well as child development experts. If you believe that sugar is decreasing your child's ability to pay attention or increasing tantrums or hyperactivity, it could be that your child has a sugar-sensitivity, in which case curbing refined sugar in her diet will help.

Possible Side Effects of Sugar

Some parents believe that loads of sugar can make their child hyperactive -- increasing the child's impulsiveness, making him less able to sit still and decreasing his attention span. The Harmful Effects of Excess Sugar, an article at AskDr.Sears, says "Studies of the effects of sugar on children’s behavior are as wildly contradictory as a sugar-crazed four-year-old after a birthday party, but the general consensus is that some children and adults are sugar-sensitive, meaning their behavior, attention span, and learning ability deteriorate in proportion to the amount of junk sugar they consume."

Medical Reasons

The sugars AskDrSears refers to as "junk sugar" are the refined, processed sugars and other types of carbohydrates that enter your child's bloodstream quickly, producing rapid fluctuations of blood glucose levels. That's why the simple sugar found in a cupcake or soda enters your child's system faster than the complex carbohydrates found in vegetables. This can lead to your child having a burst of energy and being unable to sit still and concentrate. Eventually, when that sugar high wears off, he may experience a drastic dip in energy for awhile. However, it is possible a child is reacting badly to artificial food coloring and not the sugar in a food. But the link between artificial food coloring and behavior problems is also controversial, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.


According to AskDr.Sears, some kids -- and adults -- are sugar-sensitive. That means that sugar impacts behavior, attention span and the ability to concentrate and learn. The effects of sugar are more pronounced in kids -- the younger the child, the more pronounced the effect of sugar. Dr. Kieth Conners, author of "Feeding the Brain," suggests that this exaggerated effect of sugar may be related to the rapid growth of the brain during preschool years.

Other Reasons to Cut Down on Sugar

Aside from the possible negative impact of sugar on your child's attention span and behavior, there are many reasons to cut back on sugar in your child's diet. Sugar is still the major contributor to tooth decay. Also remember that if your child is filling up on sugar-laden junk food, he may be missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. High-sugar foods are often high-calorie, meaning that a child with a sweet tooth may be at increased risk for obesity. Additionally, excessive sugar consumption suppresses a child's immune system, making him more vulnerable to illness.

About the Author

Darlene Peer has been writing, editing and proofreading for more than 10 years. Peer has written for magazines and contributed to a number of books. She has worked in various fields, from marketing to business analysis. Peer received her Bachelor of Arts in English from York University.