Sleep Quality and Child Behaviors

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, July 03, 2019
By Cristina M. Olaechea, ED.S.

Licensed School Psychologist

I have been a School Psychologist for over 15 years, but it is not until recently that I really began to pay close attention to the effects of sleep on a child’s behavior and school performance. As most things in life, you can better understand something when you have a first-hand experience with it. It suddenly becomes more meaningful, makes more sense than anything you could have read about in a textbook, and opens your eyes to things that may have been overlooked before. Thanks to my own kiddo who was having some major difficulties with sleep (unbeknownst to me at the time), I now have a lot more knowledge about sleep and the effects it can have on learning and behavior. I have begun asking many more questions regarding sleep when working my own patients and it is alarming to me how often there is something going on with their sleep as well.

From the moment we become parents, we are tracking our child’s sleep. They enter the world and we are instantly counting the hours…how many hours they slept in between feedings, how long they napped, how close they are to sleeping through the night (YAY!). We count those hours morning, noon, and night! However, not much is said about the QUALITY of their sleep.

Have you ever slept eight hours straight and woke up feeling like you had slept three hours instead? You are foggy, exhausted, and cranky. You feel like you could easily continue sleeping for another eight hours. You think to yourself, “Why am I so tired if I had a ‘good’ night sleep?” Well, the truth is you may have gotten in the hours but what happened inside your body during those hours matters just as much (if not more!). This is true for our children as well. We tuck them into bed at a decent hour, but the quality of their sleep from dusk to dawn can have a direct impact on their performance the next day.

There are several factors to look out for that may be clues for poor sleep quality. Some of these could include frequent night waking, lots of tossing and turning in bed, teeth grinding, and bedwetting. Dark circles under the eyes is the main one that I noticed every morning with my little guy. Mouth breathing, sleep apnea and/or snoring can also have a direct effect on how rested you feel the following day. Poor appetite and irritability are also red flags. Did you know that even exercising, watching TV, or eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime can affect the quality of your child’s sleep?

As mentioned before, how well rested a child is will have a direct effect on their behavior and academic performance. Children that are not sleeping well may have trouble focusing, impulsive behavior, and high levels of energy. Teachers may see their exhaustion present as nervousness, anxiety, and/or agitation in the classroom. Physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, and even stomach pain, are also common.

How do I know this to be true? Well, because it happened with my own kiddo. I was definitely shocked when my 5-year old son was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea earlier this year. I figured he was getting “pretty good” sleep because he went to bed early every night. However, he started to complain of tiredness and not feeling well at school. He was not completing his classwork and sat out a lot during P.E. We noticed the dark circles and irritability throughout the day as well. Boy, am I glad we listened to his body and started to pay closer attention to the quality of his sleep! It was then that I noticed several issues with how he slept. After an in-depth sleep study was conducted, it was very apparent that his breathing was significantly disordered while asleep and he would require treatment. Suddenly, everything made sense! Six months later, he is sleeping the same number of hours but now resting much better…and thriving! We have seen many behaviors correct themselves and he is much happier and alert throughout the day. His performance in school dramatically improved. It is still a journey for our family but we understand his body a whole lot better now and continue to encourage good sleep habits.

Although it is true that not every child with sleep issues will have trouble in school…and not all school difficulties can be attributed to poor sleep quality, the point of this post is to shed some light on a topic that is often overlooked. If some of this sounds familiar, it may be wise to have a conversation with a medical professional or schedule a consultation with a sleep specialist. Ask questions, observe your kiddos, and listen to what their little bodies are trying to tell you. Improving the quality of their sleep can certainly improve the health of their body and mind as well.

How does your child sleep every night?
Do you notice any behavior patterns at school that indicate there may be a problem? What are they?