A third of kids aren't sleeping enough. Here's why — and what parents need to know.

Experts share how a lack of sleep affects children.

A new study finds. that many kids aren't getting enough sleep. Experts share why that's an issue, and what parents can do. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
A new study finds. that many kids aren't getting enough sleep. Experts share why that's an issue, and what parents can do. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers) (Getty/Quinn Lemmers)

Sleep is a crucial part of health, but a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that up to a third of children aren't getting enough ZZZs. What can happen when kids don't get enough sleep, and why is this so concerning? Experts break it down.

What the study says

The study, which was published earlier this month, analyzed data that was collected between 2016 and 2019 from nearly 113,000 children aged 3 to 17. The researchers discovered that almost 35% of children got less sleep a night than they should, with kids in the 6-to-12-year-old age group having the most trouble. More than 37% of kids in this category didn't get enough sleep.

What are the key findings?

Beyond age, there were other factors that raised the risk of poor sleep, including being from a racial and ethnic minority group, having a low-income household, having a mental, behavioral or development disorder and negative neighborhood factors like lack of safety, support and amenities. Family factors came into play, too. More than 57% of kids with inconsistent bedtimes didn't get enough sleep, while 46% to 47.5% of kids who had parents with poor mental and physical health struggled with sleep.

"Sleep is important to children’s healthy development and is a public health concern," study co-author Anne G. Wheaton, deputy associate director for science at the CDC’s Division of Population Health, tells Yahoo Life. "More is known about lack of sleep among adolescents; less is known about sleep patterns in younger children."

What do experts think?

It's important to note that the study relied on parent surveys on how well they think their child is sleeping, and that could skew the findings. But sleep experts say they're not shocked by the data. "Adults and the pediatric population are under-sleeping," Dr. Karen Lee, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Mass Eye and Ear, tells Yahoo Life.

And what happens when kids don't get enough sleep? A lot, actually. "Chronic sleep deprivation has significant problems with just about every body system," Dr. John Schuen, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

Kids who don't get enough sleep may struggle to develop properly, Lee says. "Different hormones are released in sleep and one of the most important ones is human growth hormone — that's released in deep sleep," she says. "If children are not getting enough deep sleep or their sleep is fragmented, it can affect their growth and development."

Sleep also has a direct impact on the brain, Lee says. "If sleep is lacking in duration and quality, or if it's broken up, we can see the impacts of that," she says. "Children may struggle with academic performance or behavior."

Lack of sleep can also raise the risk of certain health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health and attention and behavior problems, Wheaton says.

Signs your child is struggling with sleep

Assessing the quality of your child's sleep can be tough, Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, sleep expert and host of the Sleep Unplugged with Dr. Chris Winter podcast, tells Yahoo Life. However, he says there are certain signs that your child may be struggling. Those include:

  • Being sleepy during the day

  • Being lethargic

  • Being emotionally volatile

  • Having declining performance at school

  • Acting depressed

Kids who have trouble waking up in the morning and have to physically be removed from bed often are having difficulty with sleep, Lee says.

But not every child responds the same way to lack of sleep. "Other children don’t act sleepy, but display high energy and have difficulties with self-regulation of behavior, emotions and concentration," Wheaton says.

How to help your child with sleep

"The first question is whether or not your child is being given the adequate amount of time and opportunity to sleep," Winter says. "If they are not, can that be remedied or improved?"

Wheaton recommends setting an "appropriate, consistent bedtime" for your child's age. (The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has a bedtime calculator that can help you figure out what that time should be based on your child's age and when they need to get up in the morning.)

"The bedtime should be the same every night, including on the weekends," Wheaton says. Establishing a bedtime routine is also important, she says. That can include winding down by turning off electronic devices an hour before bedtime, taking a bath, brushing their teeth and reading a story before turning off the lights.

If your child is older, Lee suggests talking to them about the importance of sleep, and modeling good sleep habits for your child.

But if your child is still tired despite putting them to bed at the recommended time and practicing good sleep hygiene habits, Lee says it's a good idea to talk to their pediatrician about next steps.

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