For Optimal Brain Function, Kids Need Better Sleep

Asian baby sleeping with a stuffed animal

Images by Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Less than 30% of high school kids get the recommended amount of sleep each night.
  • Technology and extracurricular activities make it difficult for some kids to get the rest they need.
  • Not getting enough sleep impacts a child’s brain functioning.

In 2009, about 30% of high school students got the recommended amount of sleep each night. By 2015, it dropped to 27%. That means roughly two out of three young people aren’t getting enough sleep

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 9 to 12 hours of sleep for children ages 6 to 12. In addition to leading to low energy, fatigue, and moodiness, sleep deprivation can also affect kids physically and mentally.

“Sleep is not only important for memory consolation but also important for cleaning up the metabolic waste the brain generates during the daytime. For kids, sleep is the peak time for secreting growth factor,” explains Ze Wang, PhD, Professor of Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Dr. Wang is the lead author of a new study that looks at the role lack of sleep plays on kids’ neurocognitive health, both now and in the future.

As we look at the impact of sleep on brain functioning, we examine how critical a good night’s sleep can be, the barriers that keep kids from getting enough rest, and how parents can make sure that the importance of sleep for kids is not overlooked.

What the Study Says

Researchers wanted to find out not only the impact of a lack of sleep on brain functioning but how long the impact lasted. They culled data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, from over 8,000 children ages 9 to 10.

The information was pulled from 21 study sites in the United States and grouped into two categories. Kids were categorized as getting sufficient sleep, with 9 hours per day, or insufficient sleep with less than that amount.

For both groups, researchers looked at kids’ mental health, behavioral problems, and brain functioning. They looked at results for those same children two years later. Published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, the findings showed the negative neurocognitive impact brought on by a lack of sleep.

Ze Wang, PhD

We found that insufficient sleep had negative effects on brain structure, connectivity, behavior, cognition, and mental health, and these effects lasted after two years.

— Ze Wang, PhD

“We found that insufficient sleep had negative effects on brain structure, connectivity, behavior, cognition, and mental health, and these effects lasted after two years,” states Dr. Wang.

He notes that the findings are concerning for kids and parents. “Although the effects are still modest, they may last for a much longer time, accumulate, or even become permanent if the status of insufficient sleep does not change. Eventually, they may lead to irreversible health issues in adulthood,” Dr. Wang advises.

While the study was limited to only looking at 9 and 10-year-old children, sleep deprivation is a problem for kids of all ages. Kids who don’t get enough sleep have a greater risk of poor mental health, diabetes, and obesity. Academic and athletic performance is also impacted. Younger children who are sleep deprived have a greater chance of poor neurobehavioral function.

Helping kids get enough sleep requires taking a look at what’s keeping them up at night.

Reasons Kids Sleep Less

With options from dance to drama, and sports to chess, there’s no limit to the number of clubs and organizations a child can join. Along with activities to keep them busy, technology vies for their time. Research shows that 60% of kids under age 12 use a smartphone; 44% use a desktop, laptop, or gaming device. Kids have more to occupy their time, which can add up to getting less rest.

“Adolescence is a critical time for brain development. The rapid change of brain structure and function makes it highly vulnerable to alterations such as sleep deficit. The corresponding negative effects may accumulate or become enlarged, leading to irreversible changes,” Dr. Wang notes.

It’s not just long-term issues that are cause for concern.

“There are consequences every day of inadequate sleep. The two primary ones are that you don’t think as clearly, you’re a little bit foggy, [and the] … effects on your mood,” explains Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back.” 

Parents have an important part to play in helping children realize that sleep is not expendable; instead, it is a crucial part of healthy development.

Helping Kids Get What They Need

When kids are younger, parents usually set the parameters on bedtime and technology usage. Creating those boundaries early helps to set expectations for the future. 

Helping kids understand the importance of priorities and scheduling is not only helpful for getting enough sleep but is also a valuable life skill.

“I think they need to be aware of how you balance activities and school requirements. Because so many kids are overscheduled at this point,” states Dr. Alvord.

Mary Alvord, PhD

Really the bedroom or wherever it is that you sleep [needs to be] conducive to sleep—and only sleep.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

She notes that managing technology is also key. “Kids and parents really [need to] make sure there aren’t screens in the bedroom. Really the bedroom or wherever it is that you sleep [needs to be] conducive to sleep—and only sleep,” she adds.

Experts say other tips include making sure their bedroom is sufficiently dark, quiet, and conducive to sleep; avoid caffeinated drinks in the late afternoon or evening; and having a time to wind down before bed. Breathing exercises, reading a book, or calming music can help.

Ultimately, kids are going to follow their parents’ example. And this is where they can really have an impact.

“They have to model it for them. They have to talk about how important sleep is. Parents are role models. It’s not just what we say, it’s what we do,” Dr. Alvord concludes.

What This Means For You

It’s hard for adults to function on just a few hours of sleep. For kids, who aren’t often skilled at handling the mental and emotional toll a lack of sleep can take, it’s even harder.

In addition, as this study notes, sleep deprivation impacts a child’s brain functioning, mood, and behavior. Parents can provide a good example, help kids prioritize their schedules, and emphasize the importance of getting a good night’s rest.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: A consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep MedicineJ Clin Sleep Med. 2016;12(06):785-786. doi:10.5664/jcsm.5866

  3. Children's Hospital Colorado. Insufficient sleep in children.

  4. Yang FN, Xie W, Wang Z. Effects of sleep duration on neurocognitive development in early adolescents in the USA: A propensity score matched, longitudinal, observational study. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2022;6(10):705-712. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(22)00188-2

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep and health.

  6. Taveras EM, Rifas-Shiman SL, Bub KL, Gillman MW, Oken E. Prospective study of insufficient sleep and neurobehavioral functioning among school-age children. Acad Pediatr. 2017;17(6):625-632. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2017.02.001

  7. Pew Research Center. Children's engagement with digital devices, screen time.