Lack Of Sleep In Kids Tied To Mental Health & Memory Issues

March 10, 2024

Any parent will tell you that an overtired kid can be a handful. But a new study from the University of Maryland has revealed more serious side-effects of insufficient sleep in children, drawing clear connections from it to both mental health and memory issues. And the impact may be long lasting. One thing is clear: helping your child prioritize better sleep habits is essential not only for their physical health but also their mental wellbeing. We dive into this new study and its implications, in addition to sharing some key advice for parents looking to help their children sleep better. 

The Study

Researchers examined more than 8,300 children aged 9 and 10, comparing MRI images and medical records alongside surveys completed by the participants and their parents. They accounted for a variety factors that could impact a child’s brain function and sleep habits, including socioeconomic status, gender and puberty status. 

What they found was that kids who sleep less than nine hours each night (which is the low end of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s recommendations for children aged six to 12) had “less grey matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and inhibition control, compared to those with healthy sleep habits,” explained Ze Wang, the study’s corresponding author.

The study also linked insufficient sleep to issues like depression and anxiety, along with memory issues like difficulty problem solving and decision making. 

What sets this study apart is that it also included follow-up evaluations. This information showed that, for the children who were not initially getting sufficient sleep, these effects not change significantly over time. “These differences persisted after two years, a concerning finding that suggests long-term harm for those who do not get enough sleep,” Wang said.

How to help your kids establish good sleep habits:

Understand What The Root Cause May Be

Just like with adults, there are many different reasons why your child may not be sleeping well. It could be because of poor sleep hygiene—but it’s just as possible that stress and anxiety is at the root. Talking to your kid about what may be keeping them up at night can help you better understand what sort of interventions may be the most helpful. 

Encourage Daily Exercise—But Be Sure To Wind It Down Early

What you do during the day has a lot of impact of how you feel at night. Regular physical activity has been shown to help improve sleep for people of any age. This could be school sports, afternoon clubs or even family walks. Just be sure to keep the exercise to the afternoon or earlier to avoid revving up their engines right before bedtime.

Keep Technology Out Of The Bedroom

By this point, we all know it: staring at our phones before bed make it harder to sleep. It’s the same with children too. Cell phones, computers and tablets should all be turned off a few hours before bed. To resist the temptation, this may require a designated spot in the kitchen or living room where everyone puts their devices for the night. 

Create A Schedule And Stick To It

In the early stages of this transition towards better sleep hygiene, having a schedule written out and posted may be helpful. What time do pajamas go on? What time do they go brush their teeth? What time do they actually get in bed? You can reinforce this routine by notating when each step is finished with a fun sticker. Not only will this help you keep track of how things are progressing, it can pinpoint which steps of the routine are regularly the most challenging. 

Introduce Them To Mindfulness

For anxious or easily-overstimulated children, breathing exercises can be a godsend—but any kid can benefit from some quiet, contemplative time before bed. While meditation may seem a little daunting at first, there are plenty of resources for how to adapt the practice for children.

Model Good Behavior

Children are like little sponges; they are always watching and absorbing what is going on around them. Practicing good sleep hygiene yourself can help model good behavior for them, giving them the opportunity to copy you. That doesn’t mean you need to be heading to bed at 8pm, but making habits like nighttime quiet time a household practice will help reinforce the practice for everyone (you may even start sleeping better yourself!). 

Know When It’s Time To Talk To A Professional

If none of these interventions are helping, it may be time to talk to your kid’s pediatrician. There could be an underlying health issue—whether physical or psychological—preventing them from getting the kind of sleep they need. According to Wendy Nash, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a form of behavioral therapy called CBT-I has been shown to be more effective at helping children with insomnia than medication.