Childhood Sleep Debt is Growing, And It's Really Hurting Our Kids

Insufficient sleep is costing our children more than just dark under eye circles, it's impacting their health, mood, and cognitive abilities.
Amelia Protiva
3 min read

In a recent poll of the Littlebird community, 88% of parents responded that their child has trouble sleeping at night.

With irregular schedules, poor sleep hygiene, increased screen activity, and other environmental factors, many of our kids are not getting the recommended amount of sleep each night. As a parent, you're right to be concerned about insufficient sleep. But what actually happens when our children don’t get enough sleep?

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is the cumulative hours of sleep your child misses each night that add up over time. It’s like owing a little bit more sleep every day, and just like financial debt, it accrues interest, and the balance you owe can quickly become overwhelming. By the time American children are teens, it's estimated that 60-70% of them are living with borderline to severe sleep debt.

The impact of sleep debt.

This study from the University of Maryland sheds light on the consequences of inadequate sleep for our children. The study found that kids with insufficient sleep faced more mental health and behavioral challenges, such as impulsivity, stress, depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. In addition, their cognitive functions, including decision-making, conflict-solving, working memory, and learning, were also impaired.

Sleep isn’t only about rest. It is critical for your child’s physical health, mental acuity, and emotional well-being. Insufficient sleep accumulating in long-term sleep debt is also linked to an increase in chronic health issues later in life.

At the beginning of the research at the University of Maryland, children getting less than 9 hours of sleep each night had less gray matter or smaller volume in areas of the brain responsible for memory and attention compared to children who were getting sufficient sleep. These brain differences persisted 2 years later, demonstrating the direct harm insufficient sleep can cause over time.

So what can you do as a parent?

Recognize the signs that your child may not be getting enough sleep, which can look like:

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Reduced engagement in activities
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Dark under-eye circles
  • Sadness
  • Chronic headaches
  • Lack of focus or poor academic performance
  • Frequent yawning or drowsiness during the day

Work to improve sleep habits. A few ways you can help your child get better sleep and avoid accumulating sleep debt are:

  • Establish a consistent bedtime routine
  • Create a quiet, dark, and comfortable sleep environment
  • Limit screen exposure in the evening
  • Facilitate sufficient physical activity during the day
  • Monitor their sleep quality with Littlebird
  • Make sure they’re getting a minimum of 9 hours of sleep each day

If you notice persistent sleep issues or concerns, don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s pediatrician or a sleep specialist. They can provide personalized advice and interventions to improve your child’s sleep quality, as well as screen for concerning disorders like sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or other neurological or developmental factors.

An investment in your child’s sleep is an investment in their lifelong well-being.

By being proactive and attentive to your child’s sleep needs, you can prevent sleep debt from becoming a deeper burden. Littlebird’s smart sleep tracking technology can be a valuable resource, helping you understand and address any sleep-related challenges early on.

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