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Sleep and childhood behavior problems: a complex relationship

Posted by Claudia M Gold  July 19, 2013 12:31 PM

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A study published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics showing a connection between hours of sleep and childhood behavior problems has received a lot of media attention. Children who slept less than 9.4 hours of sleep had more impulsivity, anger, tantrums and annoying behavior. The obvious conclusion-more sleep, better behavior. If only it were that simple.

If one takes the time to look closely, one will discover that what is correctly described as an "association" in the original article is in fact two interlinked phenomena that have a common underlying cause. Sleep problems are behavior problems. To know the cause, one must know the family story.

Sleep is a developmental phenomenon. In infancy a child learns what is commonly called "sleep associations." The breast, a pacifier, a lovey or even a parent's hair may be what a child associates with falling asleep. Frequent night wakings, expected by parents in the early weeks and months, can become a problem if that sleep association requires a parents' physical presence. As the months wear on parents become severely sleep deprived, and often find that this pattern is not so easy to change. In toddlerhood as a child in a normal healthy way begins to assert his independence, he may resist bedtime in the way he says "no" to many things. Further complicating the picture is the fact that sleep represents a major separation. A child who handles the first day of preschool with grace may suddenly refuse to go to bed, or begin waking during the night.

Given the complexity of this process, there are many ways it can get derailed. If parents do not agree about teaching a child to sleep independently, a child in the bed can cause significant marital discord.  When  parents struggle with depression, and this includes both fathers and mothers, they will have aggravation of symptoms, which often includes irritability. in the setting of sleep deprivation. When a parent is quick to lash out at a child, he may become anxious. Sometimes this anxiety leads to "acting out" in the form of oppositional behavior. It seems illogical, but a two-year-old doesn't know how to say "I need you to be with me and I feel sad when you are angry." He may simply see that when he is "difficult" his parents are more engaged with him. Separation anxiety is common in these situations, and sleep is a major separation.  Bedtime refusal and frequent night wakings are common in this setting. This leads to a vicious cycle as both parent and child become increasingly irritable.

These are some examples, and there are as many different stories as there are families. By the time parents come to see me at the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health Program with behavior problems, which in my experience always include sleep problems, they may be hard pressed to describe moments of joy with their children.

I feel for the parent who reads an article with the title More Sleep Might Help Tots' Tantrums, with its recommendation to have a child get more sleep to improve behavior, and is unable to change the situation because the underlying cause is not addressed. This is where our culture of advice and quick fixes can lead parents to be overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

The key to treating these complex problems is to give parents space and time to tell the full story. When parents themselves feel heard and understood, they are in a better position to be curious about the meaning of their child's behavior.

This study is important because it calls attention to the need to address sleep in the setting of behavior problems. However, when a child and family are struggling, simple recommendations have a child get more sleep are not only not helpful, but may make parents feel worse. A downward spiral of sleep deprivation and behavior problems will likely persist.

If a family and clinician has the time, then it is possible to make sense of the situation and take steps to set the whole family on a better path; to bring joy back in to relationships.  The younger the child, the easier this is to do.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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