Sleep Deprivation and Behavioral Problems in Children - MetroFamily Magazine
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Sleep Deprivation and Behavioral Problems in Children

Reading Time: 8 minutes 

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, early childhood specialist, parent educator, and author of the best-selling Raising Your Spirited Child, thought she understood behavior problems in children until she met Amber (name changed).

“I was in a home late one afternoon doing a private consultation with a family who had a four-year-old who was throwing horrible temper tantrums all day long.” During the visit Amber crawled up on the couch and fell asleep. “Suddenly I realized,” says Kurcinka. “that she was exhausted!” This realization launched Kurcinka in an entirely new direction in her work: research into the sleep habits of American children and how those habits affect behavior.

“Up to 20% of kids diagnosed with ADHD actually may have a sleep problem,” says Kurcinka, who now rules out sleep deprivation when she sees children with chronic tantrums, poor attitudes, and/or hyperactive behavior. “Often it is hard to recognize that children are sleep deprived because they get wired,” says Kurcinka. “When they get over-tired, their adrenal system kicks in and they become more active. Then they start picking on siblings, chasing the dog—staying active to keep from falling asleep. Parents don’t link this misbehavior to lack of sleep.”

According to Kurcinka, it’s important for parents to recognize how much sleep their children need. It may be a lot more than most parents realize.

  • Infants: 14-18 hours in 24-hour period (naps included)
  • Toddlers: 13 hours in 24 hours
  • Preschool: 12 hours
  • School age: 10 hours
  • Adolescents: 9.25
  • Adults: 8.25

These are national averages,” says Kurcinka, “and may even be a bit short. In winter most people, especially those in cold climates, need a bit more sleep to function fully.”

Bedtime Without Hassle

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put our kids to bed like they do in the movies: tuck them in, kiss them good night, and watch them roll over and fall asleep? According to Kurcinka it is not only possible, it could happen tonight! Kurcinka says that parents need to consider “the three Ts” in helping their kids get to sleep calmly and naturally: Tension, Time, and Temperament.


“Children cannot sleep if they are tense and crash sleep doesn’t count,” says Kurcinka. “Crash sleep” (dropping to sleep from sheer exhaustion such as that following a prolonged scream fest) doesn’t have the same restorative value as relaxed sleep.

Tense adults can be a significant source of tension in children. Kurcinaka says, “Adults must manage their stress to de-stress kids.” She advises parents to become aware of the things that stress their children such as weather, natural disasters, school, social pressures, significant events such as starting school or having a friend move away, excitement, and, of course, lack of sleep.

“It’s very important to monitor tension during the day and at night to make the effort to calm the child in mind and body before bed,” says Kurcinka. “The state of calm tired leads easily to sleep.”


“We all have a body clock,” says Kurcinka. “We have to set it or it leads to later and later bed times.” According to Kurcinka, children (and adults) should go to bed at the same time each night—even on weekends. “If there is more than an hour’s difference in bedtime, it puts the body into a state similar to jet lag,” says Kurcinka.

“I encourage parents to begin to recognize that they are making a choice if they allow their child to stay up late. You let them stay up Saturday as a treat—Sunday they’re fine, but Monday they are having trouble. While you can make up sleep,” says Kurcinka, “you can’t make up the toll it takes on the immune system, the poor performance at school, or the information that has not been properly stored in the brain due to lack of sleep. Think about it,” says Kurcinka, “start making sleep a priority if you really want to enhance your child’s development and performance.”


“Some kids sleep easily,” admits Kurcinka, “they have a strong natural clock and are able to shut out external stimuli. Other children are very vulnerable stress and schedule changes and need more help calming their bodies for sleep. It’s important to work with your own child’s temperament,” she advises. If you have a child who is especially sensitive, you may have to spend more time helping him relax before bed than if you have a child who drops off easily.

Adolescent Night Owls

“Puberty puts most children into a night owl mode,” says Kurcinka. According to Mary A. Carskadon, PhD of Brown University Medical School, studies suggest that “the brain’s circadian timing system—controlled mainly by melatonin—switches on later at night as pubertal development progresses. High school students who regularly score C, D, or F in school tests and assignments get, on average, half an hour less sleep than those that regularly get As and Bs. Carskadon is convinced that early start times in middle school and high school are “just abusive. These kids may be up and at school, but their brains are back on the pillow at home.” Schools that have moved start times from 7:30am to 8:30am have observed reduced absenteeism, reduced behavior problems, and improved grades.

Technology may also tempt teens to stay up later. Computers, cell phones, televisions, and I-Pods in a teens’ room may mean that they are IM-ing, chatting with friends, watching TV, or listening to music when parents think they are sleeping. If your teen seems to be keeping a regular bedtime yet still shows signs of sleep deprivation, boundaries may need to be set regarding late night technology use.

Reducing Tension Before Bedtime

Ready to make sleep a priority, but not sure how to help your child calm down before bed? Try:

  • Turn off the television and computer. According to yoga instructor Sara Alavi-Boozary of Edmond, “It’s best to turn off the TV and computer about an hour before bedtime. For a few moments, have your child sit on the edge of the bed and assume a prayer position—prayer is very calming. Or, they can just focus on the breath that travels through their nostrils, notice the in breath and the out breath, how deep it goes into their bodies. Anything to just get them into the moment.”
  • Learn to relax and be grounded. Boozary says, “It’s great to have kids imagine they’re a mountain and visualize different weather conditions around the mountain—wind, rain, storms—through them all the mountain stays grounded. Whatever life brings you, you’ve got to stay focused and grounded.”
  • Aromatherapy and/or massage. Elizabeth Skala, a practioner at Oklahoma City’s Bio Energy Wellness Clinic, recommends lavender. “It’s the number one oil because it’s high in aldahides which are calming, soothing, and relaxing,” Skala says. “Other beneficial oils include vetiver, sandalwood, cardamom, cedarwood, and peppermint. There are also blends that are extremely good for relaxation. But people need to be careful when buying therapeutic oils because so many are adulterated and lack any therapeutic value. Buys have to look for oils that have been tested and proven to be pure.” (Skala uses Young Living oils.) Regarding use of the oils, Skala says, “Inhalation can do the job but it’s also helpful to massage the oil onto the feet. Diffusion can also be helpful because the oils are anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal. They clean the air and are inhaled at the same time.” According to Skala, 20-30 minutes of diffusion is sufficient.
  • Music. As parents the world over know, gentle singing or soft music can help kids nod off.
  • Books. A ritual of relaxing bedtime stories can ease a child into sleep.
  • Reduce parental evening activity. By relaxing and reducing your activity level in the evening, you set the tone for your children to calm down.
  • A calm environment. If your child has sleep problems, avoid sending her to her room during the day as punishment. You want your child to associate his or her room with pleasant, calm emotions. Also make sure the room is neither too hot nor too cold.

Sleep Benefits for Mom and Dad

Once you have assessed your child using the Three Ts, you might want to look at them for yourself. Sleep deprivation in adults can make parenting tougher than it has to be and create the adult tension that negatively affects kids. You have nothing to lose (except irritability) in making sleep a priority for the whole family!

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation in Children

  • Moodiness and irritability
  • Temper tantrums
  • Tendency to emotionally “explode” at the slightest provocation
  • Over-activity and hyperactive behavior
  • Daytime naps
  • Grogginess when they awake in the morning
  • Reluctance to get out of bed in the morning

Effects of Sleep loss in Teens

  • School problems: misbehavior and poor concentration
  • Reduced impulse control which could lead to risk-taking behaviors
  • Increased risk of depression and ADHD
  • Poor grades

Bedtime Books and CDs


  • Books: Baby Signs for Bedtime by Linda Acredolo (includes most popular signs for bedtime); Snoozers by Sandra Boynton (short bedtime stories for lively kids).
  • CDs: Peaceful Baby, Sleepytime, Sleepy Time Lullabies (lullabies with calming subliminal heartbeat), andHeartbeat Musical Therapy #1.

Easy Picture Books

  • How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? By Varsha Bajaj (warm, reassuring bedtime ritual for animals and people alike)
  • Good Night Harry by Kim Lewis (when Harry, a toy elephant, has trouble sleeping, his friends help him.)
  • Down in the Woods at Sleepytime by Carole Schaefer (baby animals object to bedtime until Grandma Owl hoots that it’s Storytime)
  • Sheep Asleep by Gloria Rothstein (countdown to sleep is all aboutŠsheep counting sheep!)
  • The Noisy Way to Bed by Ian Whybrow (sleepy boy on a farm decides it’s bedtime & meets several animal who in their noisy way, express the same idea)

Easy Readers

  • Good Night, Little Kitten by Nancy Christensen (reluctant little kitten resists his parents’ attempts to get him to go to bed)
  • Time for Bed? By Susan Hood (young girl tries various excuses to postpone bedtime)
  • Good night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore (a Good Knight helps three little dragons who are having trouble getting to sleep.)
  • Piggy and Dad by David Martin (Piggy & Dad have fun with drawings, the bathtub, sandwiches, and bedtime.)
  • Monsters by Diane Namm (a little boy counts ten monsters in his room at bedtime but is able to get rid of them all.)
  • Amanda Pig and the Awful, Scary Monster by Jean Van Leeuwen (her parents & brother find different ways to convince Amanda that there are no monsters.)
  • Read Me a Story by Rosemary Wells (Yoko pretends she cannot read because she thinks that if her mother finds out she can, no one will read her a bedtime story.)
  • Videos
  • Goodnight Moon & Other Sleepytime Tales (approx. 26 min) (Children & stars come together in a delightful exploration of the nighttime world.)
  • The Big Comfy Counch. Picky Eaters and Naptime for Molly. (54 min) In the second story, Molly won’t take her nap. Loonette tries everything. Nothing works until Storybook Time.

Information Books

  • Babar’s Yoga For Elephants by Laurent de Brunhoff
  • Remmy and the Brain Train by Dr. James B. Maas. A magical train conductor explains sleep to tired Remmy. (Includes a read-along, sing-along CD).
  • A Good Night’s Sleep by Sharon Gordon (why the body needs sleep, what happens to the body during sleep, and ideas for falling asleep).
  • Sleep Well: Why You Need to Rest by Kathy Feeney
  • What to Expect at Bedtime by Heidi Murkoff (Explores why sleep is important, what a dream is and what to do when you wake up in the middle of the night.) Ages 2-5
  • Zzz- the Most Interesting Book You’ll Ever Read About Sleep by Trudee Romanek.

Website Don’t miss this entertaining and informative Website chock full of interesting facts about nighttime and sleep.


  • Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene Field
  • Lullaby Moons and a Silver Spoon A Book of Bedtime Songs and Rhymes illustrated by Brooke Dyer
  • When the Dark Comes Dancing A Bedtime Poetry Book compiled by Nancy Larrick


  • Debi Gliori’s Bedtime Stories, Bedtime Tales With a Twist
  • Tuck-Me-In Tales: Bedtime Stories from Around the World by Margaret Read MacDonald,

Juvenile Fiction

  • Holiday Horse by Bonnie Bryant (Baby sitting members of the Saddle Club find their evening interrupted by Maxi who refuses to go to sleep.)
  • Let Sleeping Dogs Lie by John Erickson (Hank the Cowdog pursues a chicken murderer.)
  • Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon (Celebrated since childhood for how well she skips rope, 109 year old Elsie once again skips, to save her English country town.)
  • Starring Rosie by Patricia Giff (Rosie volunteers to provide the prince and the props for her ballet class production of Sleeping Beauty.)
  • Magic Tree House Collection #3 by Mary Pope Osborne, (Dolphins at Daybreak, Ghost Town at Sundown, Lions at Lunchtime, Polar Bears Past Bedtime)

Cindy Webb is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, women’s issues, and child development. She is also Assistant Editor of TulsaKids Magazine. Prior to working at TulsaKids, she was Lead Social Worker at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth, Texas working with high risk infants and children. Cindy and her husband Bill have two children, Katie, 17, and Alex, 14.

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