The Role of Sleep in Kids' Mental Health

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Sleep plays an important role in children’s growth and development. Specifically, getting sufficient sleep is crucial to ensuring their minds and bodies function optimally. 

Read more about how sleep affects kids’ mental health, what happens when children don’t get enough sleep, and tips on ensuring they get enough sleep each night.

Why Good Quality Sleep Is Important for Children

New parents often talk about how sticking to their baby’s nap schedule makes their day easier. A happy and restful baby means happy and restful parents.

In addition, as adults, we have all experienced dreadful mornings when we didn’t get a good night’s rest. We feel groggy, lack focus, are irritable, and have trouble getting our day started. These direct effects occur for children and impacts how their mind develops.

Research shows that sleep is important in establishing healthy cognitive and psychosocial development. It impacts a child’s alertness, focus, mood regulation, resiliency building, learning capacity, memory function, emotional control, and vocabulary acquisition.

Mental Health Impact Of Sleep Problems in Children

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report showed that between 2016 and 2018, it is estimated that one-third of children aged four months to age 17 did not meet the sleep recommendations for their age. 

From early life to the teenage years, a child who does not get restful slumber can suffer mental health consequences, including increased risk for attention and behavior issues, poor mental health, and poor cognitive development.

Early Years

There is a relationship between sleep and cognitive and language development in infants and toddlers.

One study looked at the number of times 10-month-old babies woke during sleep and its association with their mental health development using the scores of the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development second edition (BSID-II) Mental Development Index (MDI). It showed that increased awakenings were associated with a lower score.

Another study looked at the sleeping patterns of 11 to 13-month-olds. Using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire and sleep actigraphy (a device that measures motor activity) to collect data, it showed that longer sleep duration and better sleep efficiency at night were related to greater cognitive problem-solving skills.

Lastly, a longitudinal twin study that followed up at 6, 18, and 30 months of age revealed that poor sleep consolidation during the first 2 years of life had a significant relationship with decreased language skills and learning in later childhood.

Adolescents

Most parents have experienced challenging mornings with a child who did not get a good night’s rest. They may be grumpy, hyperactive, and prone to meltdowns. 

A study compared sleep quality, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder trait behaviors (ADHD) and cognitive inattention between children aged 5 to 11 years old with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

It found that poor sleep worsens attentional control in ADHD children and mimics ADHD behavior in children without ADHD. It highlighted that developmental subgroups are impacted by poor sleep quality in different ways, and good sleep hygiene practices are crucial for all children.

Inadequate sleep can also affect a child’s willingness to attend school. A cross-sectional study looked at sleep disorders and school refusal behavior in children aged 8–11 years. 

The results determined that children with insomnia, such as difficulties staying asleep, parasomnias, such as nightmares and night terrors, and daytime sleepiness were more likely to exhibit school refusal behavior than children without sleep problems. School refusal behaviors were associated with anxiety or depressive disorders and separation anxiety disorder.

Teenagers

From academic pressure, emotional challenges, identity struggles, and puberty to social expectations, teenagers experience a complicated set of challenges and stress. It is of utmost importance that they get sufficient sleep during this time of rapid growth and development.

An Australian study looked at adolescents in grades 7–12 with a mean age of 15.78 years to examine the relationship between depressive symptoms and sleep quality and duration. It found that a short sleep duration and poor sleep quality were significantly associated with depressive symptoms across all ages.

The lack of sleep among teenagers can have severe consequences. A Chinese study examined the relationship between sleep problems and suicide risk among adolescents (mean age 14.6 years).

Using a self-administered questionnaire, the results showed that less than 8 hours of sleep and frequent nightmares were significantly associated with a higher risk for suicide attempts. It concluded that addressing sleep issues can have a major role in preventing suicide among teenagers.

Tips to Promote Healthy Sleep in Children

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine provides the following sleep recommendations for optimal health in children:

  • Infants (4 months to 12 months): A total of 12 to 16 hours per day, including naps.
  • Children (12 months to 24 months): A total of 11 to 14 hours per day, including naps.
  • Children (3 to 5 years): A total of 10 to 13 hours per day, including naps.
  • Children (6 to 12 years): 9 to 12 hours per day
  • Teenagers (13 to 18 years): 8 to 10 hours per day

To help meet these requirements, here are some tips to promote healthy sleep in your child:

  • Prioritize sleep as a family: The best way to teach a child healthy habits is to be a role model. Set a good example by going to bed at the same time consistently and making sleep an essential part of your life. They’re likely to follow in your footsteps.
  • Get moving during the day: Staying active can improve your sleep quality. Go for a walk to the park with your kids and find ways to make exercise fun for the whole family.
  • Manage screentime: Try to avoid screentime for an hour before bedtime. These include TVs, phones, computers, and tablets. This can help children wind down and calm their minds as they prepare for sleep.
  • Create a slumber-worthy sleep environment: Keeping bedrooms cool, dark, and quiet can help induce sleep in children. Minimize the number of toys in their bed. Separate their play area from their rest area.

Be sure to share with your child’s doctor any sleep issues that you are noticing in your child. These can include refusing to go to bed, snoring, trouble falling asleep, frequent nightmares, sleep apnea, and walking up during the night. They can offer guidance and treatment options to ensure your child gets sufficient rest.

Sleep plays an important role in your child’s overall health and well-being. Teaching good sleep habits early can majorly impact the rest of their lives. It’s never too late to start building a better sleep routine for ourselves and the next generation. 

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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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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.