Understanding the Connection Between Sleep & Behavior

There’s a lot more to a good night’s sleep for your child than just putting him to bed. Setting a bedtime routine, avoiding or being aware of and prepared for disruptions, and using strategies to calm a child are all part of the quest for a good night’s sleep.

By Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

On a recent Saturday evening, I watched as excited families paraded into a packed stadium for a high school playoff game. Babies gazed wide-eyed at the bright lights, schoolchildren raced up the steps of the bleachers, and teens took off to join equally giddy friends. Everyone was having a wonderful time. There was just one problem. That game would not end until 11 p.m., and every family's sleep schedule would be thrown wildly off track.

Come Monday morning, how many of these parents would make the connection when their baby constantly fussed, their 8-year-old had a meltdown over getting dressed, and their 15-year-old wouldn't get out of bed? Would they, as I once did, miss the connection and instead react impatiently - frustrated with the "misbehavior" - and never realize that their children were simply not getting enough sleep.

Years of working with families whose children were "misbehaving" have convinced me that the real culprit is often simply lack of sleep. Once parents learn to recognize the connection between sleep and behavior, and the symptoms of sleep deprivation in their children, they can implement measures that dramatically improve family life.

The 3 T's of Good Sleep

To experience deep restorative sleep, a child's brain needs to know it is time to sleep. And his body needs to be calm enough to sleep. Achieving these goals is entirely possible if parents understand three key factors - tension, time and temperament - and how each relates to sleep.

Tension - Your child has to feel calm and safe. Many children cannot sleep because their bodies are in a state of high alert at bedtime. A skipped nap, an anticipated event, a change in schedule, family tension - all of these things can throw a child into alert. When this happens, extra calming measures are needed throughout the day.

In fact, a good night's sleep begins in the morning! Begin your child's day with a sense of calm and loving connection. Greet him warmly when he rises and leave time for an unhurried family breakfast. Such interactions actually slow heart and pulse rates, and buffer against the day's stresses.

At bedtime, your child's room is her "nest." It should communicate that this is a place to unwind and sleep. Eliminate clutter, TV and computer use. Offer a soothing touch - a back scratch or gentle massage. With an older child, you can bring in a glass of water and talk for a few minutes. End the day with a sense of calm, connection and protection.

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How Much Sleep
Does a Child Need?

Over a period of 24 hours:

  • Infants: 14 to 18 hours

  • Toddlers: 13 hours

  • Preschoolers: 12 hours

  • School-age children: 10 hours

  • Teens: 9 hours

Time (the body clock) - A child's body clock is the control center for the sleep/wake cycle. It tells his body to be awake during the day and to sleep at night. Your child may need help setting his body clock. Cues such as bedtime routines, lighting and a regular sleep-and-wake schedule are all things parents can do to help a child develop a healthy sleep/wake cycle.

But before creating new cues for your child, consider whether you've done something to tamper with his sleep/wake cycle in the first place. The decisions you make throughout the day can innocently confuse your child's body clock. If you've ever offered your child a caffeine beverage after lunch, let him skip a nap, allowed him to stay up late as a reward or roughhoused with him right before bed, you may have innocently disrupted his body clock.

Temperament (knowing your child) - All is not equal in the land of sleep. Every child is an individual. And some have inherited temperaments that are more - more sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, lights, textures and emotions. Their reactions are often more intense and they may be slower to adjust to change than others.

"Spirited children" find it far more difficult to switch into sleep mode than their more placid peers. Instinctively, they turn to their parents for comfort and help in calming down. These children should never be left to cry themselves to sleep! Their distress levels are real and will only rise if left untended.

Five temperament traits tend to make sleeping far more difficult, including:

Not Getting
Enough Z's?
Symptoms of a sleep-deprived child include:

  • "Loses it" over little things

  • Experiences frequent meltdowns

  • Acts frenzied and wild

  • Seems more clumsy

  • Has trouble staying focused

  • Performs poorly on tasks that you know he can do

  • Has trouble waking

  • Craves carbohydrates

  • Picks on siblings

If you're seeing one or more of these behaviors, it is likely that your child is missing sleep.

  • The Intense Child is a living staircase of emotion. This child needs adult help to calm himself and doesn't want to be put down or left alone. He benefits greatly from soothing touch or having a story read to him while sitting in your lap. He requires time to unwind before bed. His sleep and nap times must be protected because, once overtired, he struggles fiercely to control his strong emotions.

  • The Sensitive Child notices everything, from a slight noise, to differences in taste or texture, to changing sights and the emotions of those around him. First, believe your sensitive child when she says something is bothering her. She really can't sleep until the tag is cut out of her pajamas or the TV in the living room is turned off. Having a "nest" to sleep in is particularly important to her. Blankets and pillows need to smell and feel right. Put her bed in a cozy corner, rather than floating in the middle of the room.

  • The Slow-to-Adapt Child has difficulty shifting from one thing to another. This child needs consistent bed and awakening times to help set his body clock for sleep. Preparation is key. He needs fair warning and cues that bedtime is approaching so that he can begin the transition to sleep. Cue him with activities such as dimming the lights, pulling the shades and putting away toys. Changing his pre-bedtime routine is upsetting to him. Build in time for him to awaken slowly in the morning.

  • The Irregular Child is unpredictable; she never falls asleep at the same time of day and easily becomes sleep deprived. Though she seems to resist it, the Irregular Child needs to be gently nudged toward a schedule. Create a routine and provide gentle but firm support to help her move toward regular sleep. Once she has adapted to a schedule, stick with it.

  • The High-Energy Child is always on the move. This child is notorious for his "short window" for falling asleep. Miss this window and his system will charge up again. An unfailing schedule helps him "earmark" that window and wind down his nonstop activities. This is also a child who needs exercise during the day.

  • At the End of the Day

    What all parents need to remember most about kids and sleep is that children are not fighting you when they can't sleep; they are battling their own bodies. You can recognize what your child needs to achieve sleep and, ultimately, teach him to reach that state on his own.

    By understanding the three factors - tension, time and temperament - you can foster an environment that encourages sound sleep and makes it a priority. The result will be enhanced health, productivity and enjoyment in each other's company.

    Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is a family educator and author of the landmark book Raising Your Spirited Child (Harper Paperbacks, 1998), and most recently Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep? (HarperCollins, March 2006).

    Children are not fighting you when they can't sleep; they are battling their own bodies.

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