Sleep Deprivation: The Childhood "Epidemic"

03/12/15: I am reposting this article with new information on two additional child-safe sleep helps.

Recently, I've seen a number of news articles stating sleep deprivation is the new children's "epidemic." I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but I certainly know lack of sleep is a growing problem for many kids. My 6 year old daughter has suffered with sleep issues for years, and now her 3 year old brother is having problems, too. I also see sleep difficulties occurring in other families around us.

Sadly, we haven't found much help for our children. Pediatricians tend to offer little or no help. Or, they are aware of only a handful of techniques to help kids sleep better. Specialists are virtually non-existent. In our area (which is the second largest city in our state) there is just one sleep specialist who will see children as patients.

It's precisely because there isn't much information available on this topic that I want to cover it here at Proverbs 31 Woman. I hope some of my knowledge can help other children and their parents; however, do understand: I'm not a doctor, and you should always discuss medical treatments with your child's pediatrician before trying them out on your kid.

Sleep Disorders in Children

Common sleep disorders in kids include:

* Frequent nightmares.

* Night terrors (sometimes called sleep terrors), where the child is seemingly awake and screaming, but can't communicate. This is especially common in children 4 to 12.

* Sleepwalking and sleep talking. Like night terrors, these often runs in families. They are most likely to affect kids 4 to 12.

* Frequent waking or inability to fall to sleep.

Sleep walking is considered the most serious of all these disorders, because it can result in physical harm to the child. Not surprisingly, it's the disorder pediatricians most eagerly offer support for. There is little to do for nightmares and night terrors, except limit a child's exposure to scary media, and offering comforting images near bedtime. There are some things that can be done for kids who just have trouble sleeping - and those are the focus of this post.

Is Your Child Sleep Deprived?

While there are medical guidelines for how much sleep children should get, a child may get less sleep than the guidelines recommend and still be considered healthy. But if your child is constantly fatigued, sleep deprivation is a possibility. The University of Michigan Health System website puts it this way, "If your child can go to bed, fall asleep easily, wake up easily, and not be tired during the day, then they're probably getting enough sleep."

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation always has side effects. Some of them affect quality of life, some affect health and safety, and some affect school performance. In children, sleep deprivation can be far more pronounced than it is in adults; if you get grumpy when you haven't had enough sleep, imagine how much more grumpy your 4 year old will be. She simply doesn't have the experience or self control to handle her sleep deprivation with grace.

Side effects from sleep deprivation, according to Web MD, include:

* Lack of alertness. ("Reducing your nighttime sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night could result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32%.")

* Difficulties with memory.

* Decreased cognitive ability.

* Increased risk of injury.

* Increased risk of high blood pressure and heart problems.

* Increased risk of obesity.

* Increased risk of depression and mood disorders.

* Increased risk of ADD.

I would add to this:
* Increased disobedience, defiance, and "acting out."

* Increased temper tantrums or crying fits.

* Difficulty with school work.

* Difficulties with friends and classmates.

Behavioral problems, in particular, tend to affect everyone in the family, lowering the quality of life for parents and siblings, as well as the sleep deprived child. In addition, parents of children who don't sleep well often don't sleep themselves, which leads to an even grumpier household, which can affect marriages, friendships, health, and jobs.

When a child is sleep deprived, it's a very serious matter for the whole family.

Getting Help

If you feel your child isn't getting enough sleep, first read my general recommendations for helping your kids to get more sleep. If these steps don't help, talk to your child's pediatrician. If the doctor offers suggestions, try them. If they don't work, let the pediatrician know. She may offer more suggestions, or she may refer you to a specialist. If she doesn't do either or these things, seek a specialist on your own. The specialist may focus on sleep, or he might be a behavioral specialist.

Keeping a Sleep Log

Before you approach a doctor, however, it's vital to keep a sleep log for your child. On a calendar or in a notebook, keep a record of when your child goes to bed, when she falls asleep (approximately), when she wakes during the night, and when she wakes in the morning.

I realize this is sometimes easier said than done. Children who are older - and especially children who are used to being up a lot at night - tend to learn to not disturb the rest of the family. Be sure to let your child know that, for a limited time, you want her to wake you so you can create a sleep log. You might also consider teaching preschool and early grade students to read the clock, if they don't already know how. I put a digital clock in my preschooler's room and told her to make a note of the first number on the clock whenever she woke up; this worked pretty well for us.

It can also be helpful to note what your child ate during the day, how active your child was, and what your child's bedtime routine was.

Keep the log for at least 2 weeks. When you see a doctor, be sure to bring the log with you.

Common Fixes

I strongly believe that with children, especially, the safest and most natural remedies should be explored first. Once people know your child doesn't sleep well, you'll probably be deluged with recommended remedies. You can also do Internet searches to find common remedies. Just be sure that before you try any herb or supplement, you first discuss it with your child's doctor. Herbs may be natural, but they can be unhealthy if taken in the wrong doses.

Resetting the Sleep Cycle

The first thing our sleep specialist recommended was keeping our daughter up a half hour later every night until she no longer woke up at night. This surprised me, since I'd repeatedly read that over-tired children don't sleep well. Nonetheless, this physician says his method works for many children by helping parents and kids find the child's "natural bedtime." Of course, if you have young children, this method may not be practical since you can't go to bed before your young child.

UPDATE 9/15/15: Experts are currently rethinking Melatonin use, especially in children. Apparently, it may adversely affect children's physiological systems, including cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems, and reproductive system. Learn more here.

Melatonin is a hormone made in the brain. Melatonin levels typically get higher in the evening, remain high at night, then drop in the morning. That's why many doctors recommend trying to regulate children's melatonin levels when they are having trouble sleeping.

There are two ways to do this. One is to have your child eat foods rich in tryptophan - an amino acid that helps create serotonin, which in turn helps create melatonin. But the mistake many people make is to eat tryptophan-rich foods only in the evening. To work properly, your child should consume foods with tryptophan throughout the day: Morning, noon, and evening.
If this method doesn't work after several weeks, you can purchase melatonin drops at a pharmacy (without a prescription). The typical recommendation is to give melatonin drops to children for only a few days; this is supposed to "reset" your child's sleeping patterns. But children with more serious sleep problems may need to take melatonin every night.

Melatonin drops are not without side effects, however. The most negative side effect for children is increased risk of vivid dreams and nightmares. Also, talk to your child's doctor about dosages; I've discovered that higher doses than what are recommended on the packaging work better - but you also don't want to over dose your child.

Cherry Juice

According to a small study, no-sugar-added, pure cherry juice may help people suffering from insomnia. Look for it in health food stores or at

Clove Tea
Herbalist have long considered clove an excellent but gentle sleep inducer. Make the tea by boiling some water, then placing 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of the freshest whole cloves you can find in the water. Cover for 10 - 15 minutes. Strain. The tea may be flavored with honey or a little milk. According to Lalitha Thomas in her book 10 Essential Herbs, infants to children 10 years of age can have 1 or 2 teaspoons of this tea; children 11 and up, 1/4 cup of this tea. It should be taken within an hour of bedtime.

A magnesium deficiency can cause insomnia. Many children do not eat magnesium rich foods (including nuts, whole grains, beans, and leafy green), but magnesium supplements are readily available. A good magnesium complex should do the trick, but some people find that a lotion or oil works better for them. See this University of Maryland Medical Center article for dosing information. (Magnesium can make us feel quite relaxed; I recommend taking it just before bed.)

Valerian and Lemon Balm

Numerous studies
show this combination of herbs can increase sleep in children. You can buy the correct mixture in Nature's Way Valerian Nighttime. Talk to your child's physician about appropriate doses.


This is an amino acid found naturally in tea (Camellia sinensis) - mostly green tea. At least one study shows it is effective in helping children sleep, even when ADHD is the supposed cause of their insomnia. My daughter has had excellent results taking just 100 mg a half hour before bed, but doses can go higher, so talk to your child's doctor for a recommendation.

California Poppy

Unlike the Oriental poppy, California poppy is not an opiate. In fact, it's been used as a child-safe sleep remedy for a long, long time. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about appropriate dosing.


The sleep specialist in our area says prescription Rozerem is as safe as melatonin; it's apparently made from a molecule found in melatonin. The pill is tiny, too, which makes it easier for kids to swallow. Like melatonin, however, Rozerem can lead to nightmares and similar side effects. Personal experience tells me Rozerem doesn't work at all if your child doesn't feel at all tired, but it can be helpful if your child is tired but can't sleep.

Prescription Clonidine is a blood pressure medication - but it's also used to treat ADHD, anxiety, and migraines, among many other things. It's sometimes used to help those with sleep difficulties because a common side effect is sleepiness. The dosage for kids is very small - not enough to affect their blood pressure.

Other Medications

In very serious cases of sleep deprivation, more serious prescription drugs may be in order.

Life Tips

Do your best to teach your child to recognize his own fatigue, then act accordingly. This may mean more limited play dates and more quiet time, for example. It might also mean making sure school days (and the day before the first school day of the week) are as relaxing as possible. It might even mean homeschooling, so you can schedule schooling around your child's sleep patterns. Only with experimentation can you discover what will make the days easier for your child while you try to find solutions for your child's sleep deprivation.


  1. Kristina, I know you've been battling with this in your home and I sincerely hope you find a solution.

    Our youngest daughter sleep walks/talks. She is in her teens now, but, as a child, we were afraid she would go out at night while we slept. There was one incident that would have been fatal had I not been awake to calmly stop her. She has no recollection of it, but it has caused me to sleep lightly and rise often to check on the family.

    Our little experience with this has taught us that children or adults with a vivid imagination, or general "worriers", are often faced with sleep issues. How to control it is something the insomniac needs to tap into.

    I haven't the answer to this problem, however, for us, the more we discuss this with our sleepwalking daughter the things she does, the more aware of it she has become. She has actually been waking herself up in the middle of her sleepwalks. She is starting to remember some of what she does or says.

  2. Thanks for those insights, Loretta. I'm impressed that your daughter is beginning to be able to control her sleep walking. How old is she?

  3. Here is my experience:

    my DH sleptwalked when he was a child so when we first had children I was concerned about that. My first daughter was very active and had trouble falling asleep. So from early age, like when she began sleeping in her own room at around 2 y.o., we began playing soft Christian music in her room. Dad would read her the Bible and then pray with her. I also gave her Sleep Tight Tea

    The tea helped calm her down. I never put sugar in the tea.. We served it cold in her sippy cup. When the other children came along we gave then the tea too. We stopped giving them the tea 2 years ago. We felt it was no longer needed.

    She is now 8 and she is still more active than the rest. We allow her to stay up until 10:30pm reading in her bed with a lamp. (we do our bedtime routine w/ everybody at 8:30pm. We read, do music, prayer and blessing. Usually the 6 and 4 y.o. fall asleep before we are done.) IMPORTANT: I don't wake my children up in the morning. I let them sleep all they want and wake up on their own. they usually don't sleep over 9 am. SO they get at least 10 hours of sleep every night. I homeschool!! :)

    Anyway, I put a gate in their bedroom door when I first put the youngest to sleep in their own bed at around 18 mo. old and have a monitor so I can hear any commotion. The gate is to keep the baby from wandering around the house. If she wakes up at night she rattles the gate and calls me. Now that she is 20 mo. old, I no longer use the gate. If she wakes up she just walks to our bedroom that is right next to the children's room.

    I also put all 4 of my children to sleep together in the same room. They each have their own bed but they are all together in the same room. Talking to friends that have more than one child and separate rooms for each child I noticed that they all talk about the children being afraid to sleep at night and having nightmares. We don't have that problem at home.

    Once or twice my son had bad dreams and it was because he saw some bad images on TV. So we monitor that closely. I don't let them watch anything scary (No Grinch, no Harry Potter, not even children's movies that might have "scary" music). If I see that something upsets them, or they move away from the TV or hide, I don't let them keep watching it. I try to respect their capacity to take in what they see. WE also teach them to close their eyes or turn away when they see something ugly, violent or exposed naked bodies. We train them to obey us in the sense that sometimes, we see it first and we can call out "Close your eyes!" and they obey. We can then turn the TV off or turn the channel. I didn't grow up with that kind of protection and I thought they might resist but they don't. they understand that we do this to protect them and as Christians we are meant to keep what is pure, true and kind before our eyes. to be continued....

  4. here is the rest....

    During Halloween I keep them away from all the costumes and programs that carry scary stuff. We don't do Halloween and we don't read or watch it either.

    I believe we as parents have to protect their ears and eyes...they are gates to their hearts and minds.

    I believe there is a spiritual aspect to these sleep troubles that doctors and parents are missing. Approach this going to God and asking Him for help. ask Him to show you what is the cause of the disturbance. I would suggest using Scripture about sleep and peace, speak them over your children before they go to bed. Dare to believe what the Word of God says about sleep: Prov 3:24 and Psalm 127:2.. Try soft music (let it playing even after they have fallen asleep) , the tea, monitor what they watch.

    A lot of times what they have seen or disturbed them during the day comes back at night because they are unprotected, the mind's guard is down.

    I am sorry this was so long and all over the place. I typed this while nursing and putting my 20 mo. old baby to sleep.

    Oh, just one more thing... I make sure all my children get exercise EVERY DAY. If they can't go outside, they run inside the house, they dance, they climb on the furniture, they jump around, they wrestle each other, they fight :) ... I don't care as long as they are active and having some good laughter and fun I know they will sleep well. No sitting in front of the computer or TV all day without moving around.

    I believe with you that the Lord will give your children the sweet sleep He has intended for them. :) Amem!

    Merry Christmas!!


  5. Interesting, Tereza. I notice the tea has Lemon Balm in it, which is one herb we've successfully used with my daughter.

    And I totally agree about praying with your child about their sleep problems.

  6. Ok, Tereza, I believe I am your lifestyle twin. LOL. I don't feel so bad now that as a home schooling Mom my kids natural bedtime is 10 to 10:30 pm and they wake naturally around 8:30 to 9:30 am. Ha! My 8 year old has had sleep problems since about 18 months old. She would wake up screaming bloody murder. I knew without a doubt she had not been molested or hurt. She was with me 24/7. She outgrew the sleep terrors, but now she will go to bed at night and sometimes lay awake until 1 am being scared. We had her memorize the verse "What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee," and that helped dramatically! Also, she finds comfort in falling asleep with her Bible in her arms, which I think is sweet. Her dad has to sometimes go in and pray with her one or two extra times at night, too. Some days are worse than others. For example, last week we had to attend two receiving friends at the funeral home. That really caused problems, but she was able to identify it. She told us that she was scared and thinking about us dying. Anyway, it is hard, but we are finding what works for her/us and going with it. My 2 middle children don't seem to have any sleep problems, but my 2 year old is definitely following in his big sister's footsteps. :/ He has always been a bad sleeper. It is so frustrating, and it can really make for a grumpy day at home with kids and parents don't get needed sleep! I was so surprised to see this article.

  7. Yes, ladies. And I should stress than no one way works for every child. For example, I know siblings who sleep in the same room, but still have nightmares. My own daughter's issues are not necessarily related to bad dreams, though. She simply has insomnia.

  8. Hi Kristina, I am a sleep consultant for You have given your readers great advice and very factual information. Pediatricians are not trained to sleep train children and offer parents very little guidance, that's why there is a growing industry of sleep consultants that are helping parents and their children get the rest they all need. I would love to help you and your family get the rest you need and we can do it via email, phone, skype and in-person, but the latter will be very costly and honestly you can sleep train without opting for the pricier option. Please get in touch and check out our forum so we can provide you with our sleep training techniques. Best of luck,

  9. Hi Kristina,

    yes, I agree with you when you say that no way works for every child. We are all unique in that way. That's why it's so good to share because you never know whose experience might be helpful to your own.

    I am glad you mentioned your daughter's problem. Before I read your comment I had been thinking of you and praying for you and I thought "I wonder if her daughter might be a night owl...."

    People do have different sleep patterns and preferences. For example, I am a night owl. I like to stay up late and if I could I wouldn't get up before 10 am!!! When I was growing up I had the hardest time waking up in the morning. Vacations were made for sleeping in. I remember getting up at 11 am and having breakfast almost at lunch time. The table was still set just for me. :)

    I don't know how old is your daughter and if she goes to school or not. But if she does homeschool you might consider letting her pick her own sleep schedule for a while and see what she naturally does.

    I know for me now as an adult when I am really tired I go to bed at 11pm, but if not I am up until 1 am. During my hormonal times (pregnancy and periods) I usually go to be at 3am. Because I homeschool and have children I am up by 8/ 9am. The days when I went to bed really late then its 10am!!

    I have organized my house in a way that it works for us. The children come cuddle with me in the morning. They get breakfast started and sometimes I will take a nap in the afternoon with the baby when I put her down for her nap.

    Now I have tried to go to bed at a normal hour, but I noticed that this is just how I am. if I force myself to go to bed say 9 or 10 pm then I can't sleep. I toss and turn. Or if I do fall asleep, I wake up a couple of hours later ready to party!! LOL

    Sometimes I will nap in the recliner while I nurse and put the baby to sleep at around 8/9 pm and then when I put her down on her bed I am wide awake. I get a surge of energy at around 10pm.

    Again just sharing what works for me hoping to give you some more thoughts and information to work with. :)

    Praying for you that the Lord will show you what to do.

  10. Tereza, I do let my kids sleep in as long as they want, since we mostly homeschool. (My daughter attends a charter school and only has a traditional classroom setting a few times a month.) We've tried letting her stay up late, too, but that doesn't help. Insomnia does run in the family, and my daughter is a former micro-preemie, which probably is part of the problem.

  11. I typed a second part to my comment and then lost it... really there is no need to type it again since you already answered some of the issues and questions I pointed out with your reply.

    I think since insomnia runs in the family and your daughter is a former preemie you might want to try what I do when I am faced with a problem that natural remedies can't solve: I go to Jesus because with Him all things are possible.

    He is willing to help us and He can. There is nothing too big or too small that He can't perform. Go to Him with your specific request whatever it is : do you want her not to wake up in the middle of the night, sleep 10 hours a night??? whatever it is... ask and listen to His response.

    and if you have already gone to Him, keep believing and persevering. :)

    Praying for you and believing with you for restful sleep for your precious daughter. :)

  12. Oh have no fear, Tereza. I do that repeatedly throughout the day and night! :) I have hope she will outgrow this problem.

  13. Hey Kristina, it has been almost 4 years since this post and the comments. I recently discovered that I think my adrenal gland was messed up with all the pregnancies and sleeping late patterns. So I did a cleanse in my diet and I put myself to bed by 11pm. I am taking Black Cherry pills and they do work to put you to sleep but for me they only work if I go to bed. If I take them and stay up on the computer they do not make me sleepy. I found out that screen of any kind is not helpful to induce sleep. So if I really want to fall asleep I need to stay away from the computer. I also began taking magnesium at night before going to bed. Magnesium is a great supplement: 1) most of us are deficient, 2) it is a natural muscle relaxant 3) helps and promotes bowel movements. So now I put myself to bed by 11pm with a book and within a few minutes I am passing out.

    How is your daughter doing? Has she overcome her sleep problems? What did you use for her?

    My 12 y.o. is still a late night owl. She will go to bed when I go to bed. The younger ones fall asleep without any problems unless we are going on a field trip the next day. :)

  14. Tereza, that's wonderful you've figured that out! Magnesium was the answer for me, too. (I've always gone to bed at a reasonable hour and avoided screens before bed.) My daughter did well with Valerian/Lemon Balm for years, but over time, all medicines stop working for her. I'm trying magnesium with her, but there's something in the oil she's allergic to, so I need to find another source that has an appropriate amount for a child.

  15. have you heard of making your own magnesium spray? I use Magnesium Malate capsules from Source Naturals but I don't know if it's recommended to children. I have given my 12 y.o. half a pill before bedtime when she didn't use the bathroom that day. It's fantastic for constipation.