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Growing in a Fog: The Impact of Sleep Loss on Children’s Development

By August 9, 2021NESCA Notes 2020

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

A recent study conducted at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom, supported the long-held belief that reduced sleep in children has a significant negative effect on their cognitive and emotional functioning. Findings were recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, in an article, titled “Sleep duration, brain structure, and psychiatric and cognitive problems in children.”

When examining children ages nine to 11, reduced sleep was associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and impulsive behavior, as well as poorer cognitive performance. Findings showed that, on average, behavior problems were 53% higher in children who got less than seven hours of sleep, compared to those who got nine to 11 hours. Additionally, on average, total cognitive scores were 7.8% lower in the children with reduced sleep.

Negative effects of sleep loss were not only observed through children’s behavior and task performance, but there were table differences within brain structure as well. Shorter sleep duration was related to lower volume in brain structures that are responsible for decision making, learning, emotion regulation, memory, executive function, sensory regulation, language function and spatial perception, among other skills. Because sleep is a highly active process, during which children’s brain circuitry reorganizes, it is thought that sleep loss can interfere with actual physical brain maturation, not just emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning.

This study conducted by the University of Warwick is not the first to demonstrate how a lack of sleep negatively impacts children’s and adolescent’s functioning. In addition to better emotional and cognitive health, adequate sleep is also related to better physical health, including reduced injuries, heart disease and obesity (

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day; grade school children get 9 to 12 hours of sleep; and teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep. While this is so, children are often chronically sleep deprived due to excessive school, social and extracurricular demands. Increasing screen time and access to social media is also problematic, not only because these distract children and teens from sleeping, but technology use interferes with the release of melatonin, reduces REM sleep and activates the wake center of the brain. It is thus not surprising that a 2015 analysis of data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys found that approximately 57.8% of middle schoolers and 72.7% percent of high schoolers are not getting enough sleep. In spite of this, school start times remain early, expectations for extracurricular involvement remain high, and blue-light-filled technology is increasingly necessary for the completion of late-night homework assignments. This occurs alongside a steady rise of stress and anxiety within pediatric populations, pointing to the importance of re-evaluating the demands and conditions under which our children are expected to grow and learn.

Sleep is a foundational necessity on which cognition, emotion regulation, attention and learning build. The negative effects of sleep loss can be felt at any age, but they are particularly concerning in childhood, a time when the brain is rapidly developing. The American Academy of Pediatrics has provided some tips on how to support healthy sleep in a child of any age. These can be accessed at, at the below link.


University of Warwick. (2020, February 4). Children’s mental health is affected by sleep duration. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from

Wheaton AG, Jones SE, Cooper AC, Croft JB 2018, ‘Short Sleep Duration Among Middle School and High School Students — United States, 2015’, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep., vol. 67, pp. 85–90.

American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics Supports Childhood Sleep Guidelines, June 13, 2016. Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from

American Academy of Pediatrics (2018). Healthy Sleep Habits: How Many Hours Does Your Child Need? Retrieved on February 24, 2020 from


About the Author:

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call (603) 818-8526.