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Small changes in sleep habits can reap big rewards

October 29, 2012

Could sleep (or lack of) be to blame for your child’s behavior at school?

We all know that sleep is important for kids, but a new study in the November issue of Pediatrics gives us reason to believe that even small changes in sleep habits can have a profound impact on children’s ability to function.

The study

Researchers analyzed 34 normally developing children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old who slept on average 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night.  The study aimed to determine how children fared with either one hour of extra sleep or one hour less sleep over five consecutive days.

Several studies have previously addressed the effects of sleep on daytime sleepiness, memory, and academic performance. However, this study looked at the changes in a child’s behavior relative to sleep time. Observational data has shown that changes in the duration of sleep time can make a child more likely to express irritability and frustration, as well as making it more difficult for a child to control their emotions and impulses. The authors reasoned that a child’s success in the school setting is not only dependent on learning and memorization, but also on these behavioral factors that affect their day-to-day functioning in the school environment.

What we learned

Children who were randomly selected to receive an hour less sleep per night (they  got an average of 54 minutes less than their usual) experienced a significantly greater degree of restlessness, irritability, and emotional instability. However, children belonging to the group who received more sleep fared better in each of these areas when compared to their baseline.

But, here’s the shocking part: the children who experienced less restlessness, irritability, and emotional instability due to more sleep time only had an average of 27 minutes more sleep than usual. Twenty-seven minutes made a significant impact on their ability to function well at school.

How does it impact your family?

The bedtime battle is one of the most contentious (and exhausting!) of our parenting dilemmas. Younger children will do almost anything to stay up later; they’ll beg for one more story, one more television show, one more trip to the potty. Often, it’s easier just to give in to avoid the nightly meltdown. And, it doesn’t get any easier as they get older. As the pressures of homework, school projects, and extracurricular activities add up, bedtime tends to be pushed later and later. Not to mention the family dinners and quality time we are supposed to pencil in, along with the exercise and socialization that is vital for a child’s mental and physical wellbeing.

It can seem almost impossible to satisfy every requirement that a child needs. But here’s what really impacted me about this study: it has helped me prioritize all of these demands. I might have been more likely to give in to a few more stories or a few more minutes of movie time before I knew how much difference just 27 minutes can make. Knowing that such a small window of time can help my child feel better, behave better and function better in school is enough reason to put the other things lower on the list of priorities.

Make sleep a priority in your house, because every single minute matters.