The Role of Sleep in Children’s Mental Health

According to the Sleep Foundation, most people know firsthand that sleep affects their mental state. After all, there is a reason why it is said that someone in a bad mood “woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” As it turns out, there is quite a bit of truth behind this colloquial saying. Sleep is closely connected to mental health and has demonstrated links to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. In this article, we will discuss the common question about how much sleep do children need.

While research is ongoing to better understand the connections between mental health and sleep, the evidence to date points to a bidirectional relationship. Mental health disorders tend to make it harder to sleep well. At the same time, poor sleep, including insomnia, can be a contributing factor to the initiation and worsening of mental health problems.

Both sleep and mental health are complex issues affected by a multitude of factors, but there is strong reason to believe that improving sleep can have a beneficial impact on mental health and can be a component of treating many psychiatric disorders.

Depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and poor cognitive performance in children is affected by the amount of sleep they have, researchers from the University of Warwick, England, have found.

Sleep states are active processes that support the re-organization of brain circuitry. This makes sleep especially important for children, whose brains are developing and reorganizing rapidly.

Sleep is a very important part of your child’s mental and physical health because it allows your child’s mind and body to rest and recover. There are many things you can do to help your child or teen get good quality sleep as often as possible.

Benefits of Sleep on Mental Health

Your child’s brain needs sleep to restore resources that were used up during the day. A well-rested brain can solve problems, learn new information and enjoy the day a lot more than a tired brain. Some areas of your child’s brain are even more active while they sleep.

Children who consistently get a good night’s sleep:

  • are more creative
  • can concentrate on tasks for longer
  • have better problem-solving abilities
  • are better able to make positive decisions
  • are more able to learn and remember new things
  • have more energy during the day
  • can create and maintain good relations with others.

What are the symptoms of lack of sleep?

Not getting enough sleep each night can have negative consequences for your child. These cannot always be erased with extra sleep the next night. Over time, not getting enough quality sleep each night can produce a range of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional symptoms.

Behavioral symptoms

  • Difficulties waking up and not getting out of bed in the morning
  • Falling asleep after being woken up and needs you to wake them again or repeatedly
  • Yawning frequently during the day
  • Complaining of feeling tired or wanting to nap during the day
  • Preferring to lie down during the day, even if it means missing activities with friends or family
  • Falling asleep or seeming drowsy at school or at home during homework
  • Consuming unhealthy stimulants, such as caffeine or sugar, regularly

Cognitive symptoms

  • Lacking interest, motivation, and attention for everyday tasks
  • Increased forgetfulness
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty learning new information

Emotional symptoms

  • Increased moodiness and irritability
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Increased stress throughout the day

When your child owes their mind and body sleep, this is called sleep debt. A large sleep debt (not getting enough sleep for many nights in a row) can result in your child feeling mentally exhausted. It can also worsen the symptoms of any existing behavior, anxiety, and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder​.

How much sleep do children need?

Your child’s circadian rhythm (also called their “body clock”) is a 24-hour cycle that tells your child’s body when to sleep. The body clock is influenced by your child’s age; children need less sleep as they get older.

The Canadian Pediatric Society has produced a general guide to the amount of sleep young children need over a 24-hour period, including naps.


Recommended Amount of Sleep

Newborns (0 to 2 months) 16 to 18 hours (3 to 4 hours at a time)
Babies (2 to 6 months) 14 to 16 hours
Older babies (6 months to 1 year) 14 hours
Toddlers (1 to 3 years) 10 to 13 hours
Pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) 10 to 12 hours
School-aged children (5 to 10 years) 10 to 12 hours


The National Sleep Foundation offers guidelines for older children and teens.


Recommended Amount of Sleep

6 to 13 years 9 to 11 hours
14 to 18 years 8 to 10 hours


The recommended amount of sleep is simply a guideline, as each child is different. In addition, sometimes your child might need a little more sleep than what is recommended, and other times they may feel fine with a little less. Talk to your child and adjust their sleep schedule to find out how much sleep per night works best.

Getting the recommended amount of sleep (e.g., number of hours) as well as maintaining a regular schedule of sleep and wake times is important, especially during stressful times. Some older children and adolescents may maintain 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day, but if they go to sleep very late and then sleep through most of the morning, this means they are not receiving the full restorative benefits of sleep.

How to respond to changes in your child’s sleep?

Naturally, there are times when your child’s bedtime may be later than usual, for instance on a family vacation or a special occasion. Going to bed a little later than usual is fine once in a while, but it is important to return your child to a healthy sleep schedule right away to give them the best chance of rest and recovery.

Keep in mind too that some children may have a reason to wake up during the night, for instance, if they need to use the bathroom, experience bedwetting, have a nightmare or tend to sleepwalk​. If you are concerned about the number of times your child wakes up, snores, or has pauses in their breathing during the night, see your family doctor.

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.