The Importance of Sleep for Impulse Control in Children

Getting enough sleep is vital for children’s development and wellbeing. However, many parents underestimate the impact that inadequate sleep can have on their child’s ability to regulate their emotions and impulses. A recent study published in the journal Child Development provides compelling evidence that sleep deprivation is linked to more impulsive behavior in children.

The study examined the connection between sleep and impulse control in 238 elementary school students between the ages of 7 and 11 over the course of an academic year. Researchers tracked the children’s sleep patterns through actigraphy watches and daily sleep diaries. They also evaluated the children’s impulsive tendencies through computer tasks and teacher reports.

The results showed that children who got less sleep exhibited more impulsive behaviors. With each hour of lost sleep, impulsivity scores increased significantly. This suggests that lack of sleep negatively affects children’s capacity for self-regulation.

Lead researcher Rebecca Spencer notes, “Preschoolers with fewer or shorter nighttime sleep periods displayed less impulse control and more aggression.” She explains that sleep facilitates maturation of the parts of the brain responsible for judgment and inhibition. Without adequate rest, these cognitive functions lag.

Why Does Sleep Deprivation Increase Impulsivity?

There are several explanations for why insufficient sleep leads to more impulsive behavior in kids:

  • Fatigue impairs executive functioning. Planning, focus, and reasoning skills get compromised when children are tired. This makes it harder for them to control their impulses.
  • Emotional regulation is weakened. Sleep facilitates processing emotions properly. When sleep deprived, children are more prone to emotional outbursts and poor decision-making.
  • Lack of sleep mimics effects of ADHD. Symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness are exacerbated without proper rest.

Impacts of Impulsive Behavior

Impulsivity in children can have many detrimental effects, including:

  • Classroom disruption – calling out, lack of focus, etc.
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors
  • Lower academic performance
  • Aggressive or violent outbursts
  • Higher rates of injury and accidents
  • Substance abuse
  • Setting Good Sleep Habits

Since sleep has such a big influence on impulse control, it is vital that parents prioritize restorative sleep for children. Some tips for improving kids’ sleep habits include:

  • Stick to consistent bedtime and wakeup times, even on weekends.
  • Have a relaxing pre-bed routine like taking a bath and reading a book.
  • Avoid screen time for 1-2 hours before bed. The blue light interferes with circadian rhythms.
  • Make sure the sleep environment is cool, quiet, and comfortable.
  • Consider melatonin supplements for children with sleep issues, under doctor supervision.
  • Get outside for daylight as soon as possible after waking to properly set circadian rhythms.

The Sleep/Impulse Control Connection

The link between insufficient sleep and impulsivity has implications beyond childhood too. Adolescents and adults who skimp on sleep are also more likely to struggle with controlling impulses and emotions. People who are sleep deprived are prone to engage in more high-risk behaviors like drug use, unprotected sex, criminal activities, and aggression.

However, the effects tend to be most pronounced in children since their brains are still developing impulse control and self-regulation skills. By ensuring our kids get enough high-quality rest, we can set them up for social, emotional, and academic success. Making sleep a priority lays the groundwork for less impulsive behaviors both now and in adulthood.