With the start of school, parents are wrangling kids to get back on a regular sleep schedule. While we let bedtimes lapse during the summer, there are legitimate reasons kids need their sleep. If left unchecked, inadequate sleep can contribute to weight gain, hinder school success, and leave your child feeling irritable, inattentive, or sullen.
But there is good news: Overtiredness is preventable. The more you know about overtiredness and how it affects your children, the better you’ll be able to spot it — and stop this health saboteur in its tracks.
Surprise 1: Tricky Tots
Don’t assume you know when your child is overtired — kids who need sleep often appear anything but sleepy. Detecting overtiredness can be tricky, says Maida Chen, M.D., associate director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Seattle Children’s Hospital: “Parents should remember that overtiredness can look like hyperactivity.” That means your child’s late-night burst of energy is actually a sign of sleepiness, despite appearances to the contrary.
Surprise 2: School Struggles
Want your child to ace a test? Make sure he hits the sack early, because sleepiness can sabotage school success. The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleep deprivation in children is associated with poor school performance and lower test scores.
Surprise 3: Weighty Matters
Chronic overtiredness can pack on the pounds and make it difficult for children to maintain a healthy weight. Research from Warwick Medical School shows that sleep deprivation increases the risk of obesity two-fold in children and adults. According to the journal SLEEP, reduced REM sleep is associated with excess body weight in both kids and teens.
Surprise 4: Diabetes Danger
Kids who don’t sleep enough have an increased risk of diabetes. Multiple studies link insufficient sleep to increased diabetes risk, and new research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that just one night of sleep deprivation can bring on insulin resistance, a factor in Type 2 diabetes.
Surprise 5: Too Tired, Too Wired
It’s counterintuitive, but overtiredness makes sleep more difficult — so depriving kids of naps or encouraging too-late bedtimes to help kids sleep better at night often backfires. When kids are awake too long, an overbalance of adrenaline makes it difficult to reach and maintain deep, restorative sleep.
Surprise 6: ADHD Imposter
Overtiredness can masquerade in a host of ADHD-like symptoms, and even lead to what researchers call “faux ADHD,” or misdiagnosed ADHD. According to a recent study, faux ADHD is characterized by behavior problems, violence, and learning difficulties, and is linked to poor bedtime habits and too little sleep.
Surprise 7: Emotionally Exhausted
New research links overtiredness brought on by missed naps to mood disorders in toddlers. According to a new study, toddlers who miss naps have trouble expressing emotions, which has a lasting effect on their developing brains.
Surprise 8: Night Frights
Helping your child get adequate sleep can help protect her against things that go bump in the night. Kids who are overtired are more prone to nightmares — doctors chalk this up to the fact that overtired children spend more time transitioning in and out of deep sleep.
Surprise 9: Fidgety Legs
Overtiredness worsens the symptoms of restless legs syndrome. According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, RLS affects 1.5 million children and adolescents and contributes to disrupted sleep, fatigue, and depression.
Surprise 10: Early Birds
If your little rooster is waking up at 5 a.m., overtiredness could be to blame. It is a common reason for waking up too early in the morning; when overtired children reach the naturally-occurring phase of lighter sleep in the pre-dawn hours (from around 4 to 6 a.m.), many wake up and stay awake instead of rolling over and falling back to sleep.
The best prevention for overtiredness is also the best cure: an age-appropriate bedtime and a solid bedtime routine. According to doctors, parents can prevent the health havoc overtiredness can cause by prioritizing their child’s sleep needs; an extra half-hour of sleep is more important than another extracurricular class, another television show, or another round of video games. It’s a small price to pay for a calmer, happier, healthier child.