How Do Sleep Problems Affect Children’s Behavior?

Not Enough Sleep or Sleep Apnea May Undermine Sleep Quality, Affect Behaviors

Sleep problems can lead to behavior problems in children
Sleep problems can lead to behavior problems in children. Cornelia Schauermann/Cultura/Getty Images

When the sleep of children becomes disrupted - either due to an inadequate amount of sleep or due to sleep disorders like sleep apnea - there may be significant effects on their daytime behaviors. Too often children get labeled as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These behaviors can lead to problems at school and unnecessary stimulant medications. How do sleep problems affect children’s behavior?

Learn about the relationship and ways to help your child to sleep and behave better.

How Sleep Changes Daytime Behaviors in Children

Children are subject to unexpected changes in their behavior and functioning when their sleep is disrupted. Unlike adults, who become sleepy with inadequate rest, children have a paradoxical response: They actually become hyperactive. They may seem to be "always on the go," distractible, disorganized, and difficult to manage. This may manifest as attention deficits and hyperactivity that may be misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In addition, there may be emotional outbursts such as aggression, crying, and inappropriate behaviors. School performance may suffer and learning may be impeded.

Why sleep problems affect children in this way is not fully understood. One theory is that children have a strong drive to be awake during a critical period of learning and development.

In order to stay awake, despite sleep disruption, children may seek stimulating activities and have high levels of physical activity. It is also thought that the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, important in regulating behaviors and decision-making, may be especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation.

What Sleep Problems Lead to Poor Behavior in Children?

Children who do not have an adequate amount of time sleeping to meet their needs may be at risk. In addition, sleep disorders such as snoring or sleep apnea may also disrupt sleep. It is never normal for a child to snore. This may result in poor quality sleep, setting a child up for the effects on daytime behavior. Children may also experience restless legs syndrome and this can make it hard for them to fall asleep. Some children have insomnia and this may reduce the amount of sleep that is obtained.

What to Do If You Are Concerned About Your Child's Sleep

If your child has difficulty with behavior during the day, you may wish to seek a thorough sleep evaluation. Sleep disorders may be contributing to the daytime difficulties. Fortunately, there are many effective treatment options available that may help your child to sleep better and thrive. Start by speaking with your pediatrician and consider further consultation with a board-certified sleep specialist who works with children.


Durmer, JS et al. "Pediatric Sleep Medicine". Continuum. Neurol 2007; 13(3):153-200.

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