More Sleep Might Help Tots' Tantrums

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Sleeping less in preschoolers linked to more frequent poor behavior

July 13, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Parents of preschoolers know that dealing with kids' temper tantrums is just part of parenting. But what if there were a way to reduce tantrums in kids who had them more often than usual?

A recent study found preschoolers who got too little sleep each night tended to show more problematic behaviors than kids who got more sleep.

Kids who got too little sleep each night had a higher risk of aggression, tantrums, impulsivity and anger than kids who got enough sleep nightly.

For parents of these kids, an earlier bedtime to increase the kids' quantity of sleep may help with problematic behaviors.

"Make sure your kids get enough sleep each night."

This study, led by Rebecca J. Scharf, MD, MPH, of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, looked at how many hours of sleep preschoolers were getting in the US and whether it affected their behavior.

The researchers analyzed data from 8,950 children born in 2001. They were being followed in a long-term study called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort.

The children represented different demographics that approximately matched the breakdown of children in this age group across the US.

Based on the children's parents' reports of their 4-year-olds' bedtimes and wake-up times, the researchers estimated how much sleep the preschoolers got each night.

The parents also rated on a scale from 1 to 5 how frequently their children showed the following behaviors: overactivity, anger, aggression, impulsivity, tantrums and annoying behaviors.

The results revealed that the average sleep time for 4-year-olds in the US was 10.5 hours each night, with an average bedtime of 8:39 pm and an average wake-up time of 7:13 am.

The researchers then looked for the second most common average sleep time, which was less than the overall average.

Most of the children getting less than the average amount of sleep were getting around 9.4 hours each night.

The researchers compared the children getting less than 9.4 hours of sleep to those getting at least 9.4 hours of sleep in terms of the children's behaviors.

In doing this analysis, the researchers also took into account other factors that might influence the children's behavior.

These factors included the child's race/ethnicity and gender, the family's income, the parents' levels of education, the family structure, how much TV the child watched and how often the mother showed symptoms of depression.

The researchers found that children getting less than 9.4 hours of sleep had a higher risk for a range of problematic behaviors compared to those getting 9.4 hours or more of sleep nightly.

Compared to the children regularly getting at least 9.4 hours of sleep, the children getting less sleep were 30 percent more likely to show frequent overactivity, 44 percent more likely to show frequent impulsivity and 40 percent more likely to show frequent anger.

The children getting less sleep were also almost twice as likely as those getting at least 9.4 hours nightly to show aggression (81 percent more likely).

The children getting less sleep were also 46 percent more likely to throw tantrums and 40 percent more likely to have frequently annoying behaviors, compared to those getting more sleep.

The researchers concluded that preschoolers who got too little sleep each night were more likely to have behaviors of acting out.

The flip side is that children who are acting out and getting too little sleep may have improved behavior if their sleep time is increased.

In fact, William Kohler, MD, the Director of Pediatric Sleep Services at Florida Hospital Tampa and a dailyRx expert, said the study findings can be boiled down to one simple point.

"The bottom line is, better sleep, better behavior," Dr. Kohler said. "This is an additional important piece of research showing the importance of sleep."

The study was published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

The research was funded by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the US Health Resources and Services Administration. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.