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Guest Post: The Hidden Cause of Behavioral Issues

Kids are, well, kids. They’re not always nice, they don’t always behave, and sometimes it can get ugly. But, if you’ve noticed that your child is unusually cranky or clingy lately, or if they are having behavioral issues that weren’t apparent (or as severe) before, the cause may be inadequate sleep. Even if your child does not seem tired during the day, it could be an issue.

Research Shows

A study conducted by the national sleep foundation found that 27% of school-aged children did not get enough sleep, while on average, 33% of toddlers and preschoolers were not getting the sleep they need. Even worse, a whopping 50% of infants weren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep daily.

It is well known that sleep affects cognitive abilities. The important role sleep plays in memory consolidation makes it easy for a lack of sleep to affect a child’s ability to learn, both in school and at home. There is also growing evidence that short sleep duration results in metabolic changes that can lead to obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular problems.

Beyond all the obvious health risks of not getting enough sleep, there is another looming factor: sleep has a huge impact on children’s behavior. A 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics found a clear correlation between irregular bedtimes and daytime behavioral issues. Furthermore, they found that children progressing through childhood without stable bedtimes had ever-worsening behavioral scores (scoring included issues with peers, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and emotional difficulties.) They also found that children who were switched to more stable bedtimes had obvious improvements in their behavior.

A Scholastic article suggests that sleep-deprived children have trouble managing emotions, which leads to sensitivity, impatience, and finicky tempers. They can also have trouble paying attention, and may be excessively talkative or hyperactive in an attempt to stimulate themselves and re-focus their minds. A Finnish study even found that normal, healthy children who got less than 7.7 hours of sleep displayed several symptoms of ADHD, even though they weren’t diagnosed with the disorder.

We don’t need any peer reviewed studies to prove that tired kids get cranky, but when it comes to more diverse behavioral issues, it’s important to consider that inadequate sleep may be the root cause. This is especially true because sleep deprived children don’t always act tired. Even behaviors that seem to say “I’m not sleepy,” like hyperactivity, resistance to sleep, or even high amounts of energy at bedtime can all be signs that your child actually needs more sleep.

How to Know If Your Child Needs More Rest

It’s hard to tell for sure if your child isn’t getting enough rest, but here are some signs that sleep is an issue for your little one:

  • Your child displays daytime crankiness, temper tantrums, or overall bad moods.
  • Your child has trouble focusing on tasks.
  • Your child lacks interest in activities or desire to play/socialize.
  • Your child falls asleep at school or while doing homework.
  • Your child naps during the day or falls asleep in the car (only applies to children who’ve outgrown daily naps.)
  • You have to wake your child up in the morning (school-age children should arise naturally around the same time every morning. It may be simply due to the fact that they aren’t going to bed early enough, however, if you have to wake them up yourself, or with an alarm, they simply aren’t getting the sleep they need.)

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Here are some of the most common factors that contribute to inadequate sleep:

  • Caffeine consumption is a major contributing factor. Don’t allow your child to consume caffeine, or only allow small amounts no later than noon.
  • Use of televisions and electronic devices before bed affects the way our brains process sleep hormones and inhibits a child’s ability to fall asleep. Do not keep a television in your child’s room, and turn off all screens at least one hour before bedtime. Listening to music can be a good pre-bedtime activity, but because of the way our ears process sound, stick to gentle, calming melodies and keep the volume down.
  • Irregular bedtimes disrupt a child’s circadian rhythm, which has several adverse effects. It’s very important to set a regular bedtime and stick to it (of course, letting kids stay up about an hour later on weekends falls within the bounds of keeping a stable bed time.)
  • Traveling or staying with a friend or family member can disrupt normal sleeping habits, so it’s important to make sure your child is comfortable and is able to stick to their normal bedtimes and routines, even when away from home. Bringing along their favorite blanket, stuffed animal, or pair of pajamas can make any place feel like home.
  • Stress affects everyone’s abilities to fall asleep, but this is especially true for children. A certain amount of stress is normal, especially when experiencing tough issues, like the death of a pet or loved one. It’s important to monitor your child’s stress levels and seek help if an issue persists.
  • If your child experiences snoring, or loud or heavy breathing during sleep, this can impact the quality of sleep they are getting and lead to repeated night time awakenings. A humidifier or eucalyptus essential oil can aid breathing and ease snoring.

Tips on Getting Them More Rest

Here are some additional things you can do to help your child get the amount and quality of sleep they need:
  • Make pre-bedtime a regular routine, especially if your child has difficulty falling asleep once they’re in bed. Whether your drill includes bathing, reading, family time, or anything else, do the same things, in the same order, at the same time every night. After a while, your child’s brain will start getting into “sleep mode” every time the routine begins, which will make it much easier to fall asleep once they’re under the covers.
  • Children need a lot of sleep, which means they often have to sleep during daylight hours. Sunlight can affect the brain’s ability to switch off, so consider getting some blackout blinds to control light levels throughout the year.
  • There are some myths flying around that say eating before bed can keep your kids awake, but there are actually several late-night snacks that can help your kids fall asleep. Things high in B vitamins, like bananas or a small tuna sandwich on whole grain bread, aid the production of melatonin. Cherries are also one of the only natural sources of melatonin, so dried cherries or no sugar added cherry juice can help as well.
  • It’s not ideal to stay with your child until they fall asleep, or let them sleep in your bed, but some amount of comforting can help calm them. If they are restless or irritable, consider singing them a song, reading them a story, or snuggling them for a few minutes. For older children, simply asking them if there’s anything on their minds can take a lot of weight off.

While behavioral issues can stem from many different causes, inadequate sleep is one of the most under-recognized. I hope these insights can be of use, and if you have any advice to add, or try any of these tactics, leave a comment. I would love to continue the discussion on this important issue.

Amanda_EarleyAJ Earley is a personal chef and freelance writer from Boise, Idaho.

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