A study that tracked the sleep patterns of children from birth to age four has found that shorter sleep times are correlated with more anger, aggression, impulsivity, tantrums, and other annoying behaviors.  The research team—lead by Dr. Rebecca J. Scharf of University of Virginia, Charlottesville—published their findings in this month’s Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

The research was based on parent surveys from a nationally representative study of approximately 9,000 children. The study asked parents to report about children’s sleep duration (by asking what time children went to sleep and woke up) as well as six “externalizing” behaviors including anger and aggression.

The results showed that the mean nighttime sleep duration was 10.5 hours, based on an average bedtime of 8:39 pm and wake time of 7:13 am. This sleep duration is less than what is recommended for young children, but it is more than the 9.75 hours that researchers consider a “short duration” (calculated as one standard deviation below the mean). They found that 11% of children were considered to have a short sleep duration.

Dr. Scharf found that even after adjusting for other factors, “Children in the shortest sleep groups have significantly worse behavior than children with longer sleep duration.” Aggressive behavior problems were most affected by short sleep durations; children who slept less than 9.75 hours nightly were 80% more likely to experience them. The shorter sleep duration was also associated with 30% to 46% increases of externalizing behaviors like overactivity, anger, and impulsivity. The researchers observed that as sleep duration increased, the externalizing behaviors decreased, which indicates that preschool aged children who sleep less are more likely to have behavior issues.

The research team concluded their report by encouraging doctors and health care providers to speak with parents about appropriate sleep times, especially when working with children with behavioral issues. They state that “Advocating for regular sleep habits, healthy sleep hygiene, and regular bedtime routines may be helpful for young children.”

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