Children's Hospital Colorado

The Power of Sleep for Kids

A close-up of a boy with thick brown hair yawning

Kids need a lot of sleep — 8 to 10 hours a night for teens, 9 to 11 for school-aged kids and 10 to 14 for preschoolers and toddlers. Unfortunately, up to 50% of kids in the U.S. don’t get as much as they need. And the lack of it can impact weight management, intellectual functioning and, especially, behavior.

“The established thinking is that sleep is the time the body regenerates itself,” says Ricky Mohon, MD, Medical Director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “So if you’re not getting enough, those recuperative things don’t happen as effectively.”

When kids don’t get enough sleep

In older kids, lack of sleep presents as chronic fatigue, falling asleep during the day, difficulty concentrating or performing at peak, and even difficulty regulating emotions. In younger kids, it can look a lot like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): outbursts, behavioral problems, hyperactivity.

“When we’re not well rested, the brain can’t focus or put things into long- or short-term memory — so there’s an attention deficit,” says Susan Crane, Psy.D., a sleep psychologist. “And overtired younger children can get kind of wired, which can look like hyperactivity. Lack of sleep can really mimic symptoms of ADHD.”

How parents can help kids get more sleep

Help kids form good sleep habits

For the majority of these kids, the problem is poor sleep habits. Many kids and teens are overscheduled, staying up too late finishing the activities of the day and getting up early for school. They’re not spending enough time in bed.

“The main problem I see,” says Dr. Crane, “is that people aren’t in their beds enough. And when they’re in bed, kids should be either sleeping or going to sleep.” Keeping screens and phones out of bed, and not using the bed as a hangout, helps kids to associate it with sleep and sleep only, which will help them get to sleep faster and sleep better.

Screen time and sleep: don’t mix devices and bedtime

Other factors may contribute as well. For instance, too little exercise and too much light exposure from screens, especially during bedtime, can lead to insomnia or trouble getting to sleep.

“Kids are taking devices to bed with them, playing games or communicating with friends,” says Stephen Hawkins, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist, “and the light from screens suppresses melatonin production. I like to tell patients that screens trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and if it’s daytime, your brain is not going to let you fall asleep.”

Sleep and breathing: when it’s more than bad habits

Breathing disorders present additional sleep problems for some kids.

“Sleep disordered breathing is very common,” says pediatric sleep expert Dr. Ann Halbower. “About 12 to 15% of kids experience it to some degree. Kids who have severe, noticeable apnea where they stop breathing, that’s about 2 to 5% of kids.”

A child who can’t breathe at night can’t sleep well, and the condition can potentially be dangerous.

Kids and snoring

Aside from overtiredness during the day, Dr. Halbower says, a big indication of some sleep breathing problems in kids is habitual snoring — something kids don’t normally do, since the sagging skin that causes snoring should be tight in kids.

“It’s underappreciated that snoring in kids is not normal,” adds Dr. Hawkins. “If a kid is snoring more than two nights a week, that’s too much. It could be sleep apnea, or asthma, allergies or nasal congestion. Either way, we want to get it checked out.”

Why kids should see a pediatric sleep specialist

For kids who may have underlying medical or behavioral issues, it’s important that parents seek care from a pediatric sleep center, as these centers will have a better eye for disorders that tend to affect kids.

“At that appointment, we’re going to take an incredibly thorough history,” says Dr. Hawkins. “We’re going to try to rule out overscheduling and bad sleep habits, and then we’re going to do a pinpoint screening for disorders. We then work with the family to draw up a plan, and we communicate that back to the child’s primary provider.”

Better sleep can lead to better health

The moral of the story is that making sleep time a priority is just as important as a good diet and education. And the good news is that – most of the time – it’s as simple as getting to bed on time.

Answers to your sleep FAQ

Looking for more? Learn the top seven questions we receive about sleep and kids – and our answers.

The sleep team experts at Children’s Colorado can help with any sleep concerns. To schedule an appointment, call: 720-777-6181.

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