How sleep (or lack of it) affects a child’s brain

How Sleep (or Lack of It) Affects a Child’s Brain

Jul 31, 2019

Ah, sleep. What parent doesn’t love peering down at their peacefully slumbering child after a long day? Not only is it a calming moment for you, but sleep for a child is an important tool that helps to maintain and promote physical and mental health, overall growth, and development.

As most parents can attest, it’s also something you don’t want to mess with. When a child between the ages of five and twelve gets even an hour less than the recommended nine to 11 hours of sleep per night, they can be irritable, have a lower attention span, and are more prone to emotional meltdowns.

That’s because those “sleeping hours” are critical for growth. By the time children are ready for school, they’ve developed regular sleep rhythms that include two alternating states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). In the latter state, a child’s brain is more active and they begin dreaming. In the former, the body sends more blood to the muscles and restores energy, which allows tissue growth and repair. It’s also during this state that hormones are released to encourage overall growth and development.

Given that, it’s no wonder a good night’s rest is key to helping your child’s brain grow and develop. Here are six ways which proper shut-eye can benefit any school-aged kid.


After the age of five, most kids no longer need naps, so if a child is falling asleep in the car or on the couch before bedtime, that lack of energy is one indication that they aren’t sleeping enough. Meanwhile, some children have the opposite reaction to not enough sleep, and they can become even more hyper or physically active. Often parents believe that an abundance of energy is a result of too much sleep or a lack of tiredness, and they may choose to keep a child up. But doing so can actually compound the problem in the long run.


Creativity and imagination are cornerstones of any childhood, which is why play-based learning is so highly promoted when children are younger. But studies have shown that even one poor night’s sleep for a child can impact creativity and abstract thinking, which makes every night of sound sleep an important one.

Concentration and focus

Anyone who has ever been overtired can attest to feeling a lack of concentration or focus, but in children a lack of sleep can have longer-lasting effects than a sluggish morning. Some research suggests that children who consistently get less than 10 hours of sleep when they’re younger are more likely to have hyperactivity and impulse problems when they’re older. Meanwhile, the symptoms of sleep-deprivation and ADHD are very similar, and tired kids are likely to be more easily distracted at home and in school.


When children sleep, their brains restore resources that were depleted during the day while also recalling certain experiences and memories. During this process, the brain has been shown to even solve ongoing issues or problems that may seem more overwhelming during waking hours. No wonder whenever you’re faced with an important decision in life, one of the most common suggestions is to “sleep on it.”


There are a few ways that sleep and memory go hand-in-hand, especially in children. As anyone who has ever been sluggish knows, it’s a lot harder to focus on learning when you’re tired. Moreover, it’s also during sleep that the brain takes information that it has learned during the day, processes it, and then stores it in the long-term memory bank. If a child is unable to log enough hours of sleep in order to do this, their memory is impacted

Irritability and relationships

Anyone who has ever been overtired (a.k.a. everyone) knows that a poor night’s sleep and irritability, stress, and bad temper go hand-in-hand. Sleep is important for a child’s mental health, as it affects their overall mood and mental state, setting them up for a good or a bad day. Research has also shown a link between children who receive inadequate sleep and depression or anxiety disorders, making a proper sleep schedule essential for mental health.

Of course, not everyone has a stellar night’s sleep all of the time, and a variety of factors can affect how a child settles down at night. That’s why experts recommend teaching school-aged children about healthy sleep habits and encouraging regular sleep schedules and bedtime routines. Children should avoid caffeine and shut down any screens at least an hour or two before bedtime, and their rooms should be kept dark, cool, and quiet in order to ensure the best sleeping conditions possible.


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