Behavioral problems may lie ahead for preschoolers who get poor sleep, study says

New research suggests sleep is vital to developing brains

During sleep, our bodies are generally still, but our minds are busy consolidating memories and getting rid of toxins accumulated throughout the day. Studies have shown that a good night’s rest can help a person retain information and perform better on memory tasks.

With all that happens during sleep, it’s no wonder growing children require so much rest. But what happens when kids don’t get enough sleep? A morning meltdown or fussy day may be just the beginning.

New research suggests that children ages 3 to 7 who don’t get enough sleep may be more likely to have behavioral problems in later years. Too little sleep in preschool years can lead to problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships in mid-childhood, said lead researcher Dr. Elsie Taveras.

Decreased mental functioning

"We found that children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age 7," said Taveras, chief of General Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston

"The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship,” she noted.

To reach these findings, the researchers looked at data collected as part of Project Viva, a long-term investigation involving a group of children recruited for the study before birth. The mothers of 1,046 Project Viva kids reported, via regular questionnaires, how much sleep their children routinely got.  

By age 7, the children who regularly received poor sleep from age 3 onward exhibited “poorer ability to pay attention, poorer emotional control, poorer executive function in general, and more behavioral problems,” Taveras said.

Vital to developing brains

The observational study may not prove a direct cause-and-effect link between sleep and children’s behavior, but previous studies have suggested that insufficient sleep can lead to chronic health problems -- including obesity -- in both mothers and children.

"The results of this new study indicate that one way in which poor sleep may lead to these chronic disease outcomes is by its effects on inhibition, impulsivity and other behaviors that may lead to excess consumption of high-calorie foods,” said Taveras.

“It will be important to study the longer-term effects of poor sleep on health and development as children enter adolescence, which is already underway through Project Viva,” she added.

Children 3 to 5 years old need 10 to 13 hours of sleep each day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents can help their kids get better sleep by establishing a consistent bedtime routine, such as “bath, book, bed,” Taveras said. Light-blocking curtains and a cool, quiet bedroom can also set the stage for a good night's rest.

The full study has been published online in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Take a Home Warranty Quiz. Get matched with an Authorized Partner.