Home » News » Insufficient Sleep in Childhood Can Up Risk of Mental Health Issues

Insufficient Sleep in Childhood Can Up Risk of Mental Health Issues

A new study suggests getting enough sleep in childhood can help kids avoid mental health issues. Conversely, insufficient sleep during childhood increases the risk of developing psychiatric issues later in life.

In a study of almost 800 kids followed over several years, Norwegian researchers discovered that those who get the fewest hours of sleep are at greatest risk of developing psychiatric difficulties as later in life. The mental health issues include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression.

“If we make sure our children get enough sleep, it can help protect them from mental health problems,” said Bror M. Ranum, a Ph.D. candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

“We’re seeing an association between sleep duration and a risk of symptoms of emotional and behavioral disorders,” said Ranum, first author of the new article on children, sleep and risk of mental health disorders.

Boys who sleep fewer hours have an increased risk of developing behavioral issues. Both girls and boys who get less sleep are at greater risk for future emotional problems. The measurements do not indicate anything about the quality of sleep.

In the study, children’s sleep was measured with motion sensors every night for a week. The researchers conducted clinical interviews to measure mental health difficulties. These procedures were repeated several times every two years. The research appears in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers investigated whether psychological difficulties might cause children to sleep less. The data suggest otherwise. Sleep duration influences the risk of later problems, not the opposite.

“Previous studies have also shown that sleep is related to mental health difficulties. But our study is one of the first to investigate this in children over several years, and to use an objective measurement of sleep,” said senior author Dr. Silje Steinsbekk at NTNU’s Department of Psychology.

Because people tend to be quite poor at reporting how much sleep they get, she said, scientists cannot completely rely on people’s self-reported sleep duration data. Self-reported sleep duration does not correlate with objective sleep duration measurements.

“Our study shows that the children who sleep fewer hours than others more often develop psychiatric symptoms, even two years later,” said Steinsbekk.

Ranum emphasized that big individual differences exist when it comes to how much sleep each child needs. That is, what amounts to too little sleep for one child may be more than enough for other kids. Therefore, he advises parents to not worry unnecessarily.

“But if you find that your child seems to be under the weather and can’t concentrate, or you notice their mood fluctuate more than normal, then you may want to help them get more sleep,” Ranum said.

He said it is difficult to give advice that fits for all families and all children. But having a consistent wake-up time in the morning is perhaps the most important way to develop healthy sleep habits.

And maybe future research will show that sleep can help in treating children’s mental health problems.

The research group has also investigated how many people get too little sleep, and whether or not too little sleep tends to persist throughout childhood.

Study findings found that children six years of age and younger generally receive the appropriate amount of sleep. Very few six-year-olds (1.1 percent) slept less than 7 hours, which is below the internationally recommended sleep guidelines for this age group.

But, as the children got older, the number who were not getting enough sleep gradually increased (at age 8: 3.9 percent; age 10: 4.2 percent and age 12: 13.6 percent).

Children who were getting too little sleep when they were 6 years old did not necessarily suffer from a lack of sleep when they got older, with most of them meeting the recommended sleep duration.

However, if insufficient sleep started later, at age 10 for example, the habit tended to persist. Fewer of these children outgrew their insufficient sleep pattern as they got older.

The researchers counted the number of individual nights with less than 7 hours of sleep per week and found that quite a lot of children experienced one or more nights with less than 7 hours of sleep (age 6: 15.1 percent; age 8: 39.1 percent; age10: 45.7 percent; age 12: 64.5 percent).

In other words, more children had single nights with too little sleep compared to how many on average (over a week) slept too little. Those who had individual nights with fewer sleep hours continued this pattern as they aged, suggesting that such a sleep pattern often did not change.

“Six- to 10-year olds tended to sleep less on weekends. This trend flipped between the ages of ten and twelve, when longer sleep times on weekends and not enough sleep on weekdays became more common,” said Dr. Lars Wichstrøm, also at NTNU’s Department of Psychology and a co-author of the study.

“We don’t know what the consequences are of a few nights here and there with too little sleep. But we do know that after a night without enough sleep, we’re moodier and less able to concentrate, which can affect how we function that day, including at school. So, it’s advisable to get enough sleep,” Steinsbekk said.

Researchers noted that parents should not worry unnecessarily as most children who average too little sleep over the course of a week will not continue that pattern. The vast majority of children outgrow insufficient sleep habits. Nevertheless, some adjustments to sleep routines may be advisable if your child is affected by lack of sleep.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Insufficient Sleep in Childhood Can Up Risk of Mental Health Issues

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Insufficient Sleep in Childhood Can Up Risk of Mental Health Issues. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Mar 2020 (Originally: 18 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.