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How Do Sleep Problems Affect Children’s Behavior?

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Updated March 05, 2013

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Question: How Do Sleep Problems Affect Children’s Behavior?
When the sleep of children becomes disrupted -- either due to an inadequate amount of sleep or due to sleep disorders -- there may be significant effects on their behavior. How do sleep problems affect children’s behavior?
Answer:

Children are subject to unexpected changes in their behavior and functioning when their sleep is disrupted. Unlike adults, who become sleepy with inadequate rest, children have a paradoxical response: They actually become hyperactive. This may manifest as attention deficits and hyperactivity that may be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In addition, there may be emotional outbursts such as aggression, crying, and inappropriate behaviors. School performance may suffer and learning may be impeded.

Why sleep problems affect children in this way is not fully understood. One theory is that children have a strong drive to be awake during a critical period of learning and development. In order to stay awake, despite sleep disruption, children may seek stimulating activities and have high levels of physical activity. It is also thought that the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, important in regulating behaviors and decision-making, may be especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation.

Children who do not have an adequate amount of time sleeping to meet their needs may be at risk. In addition, sleep disorders such as snoring or sleep apnea may also disrupt sleep. It is never normal for a child to snore. This may result in poor quality sleep, setting a child up for the effects on daytime behavior.

If your child has difficulty with behavior during the day, you may wish to seek a thorough sleep evaluation. Sleep disorders may be contributing to the daytime difficulties. Fortunately, there are many effective treatment options available that may help your child to sleep better and thrive.

Source:

Durmer, JS et al. "Pediatric Sleep Medicine". Continuum. Neurol 2007; 13(3):153-200.

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