Teachable Moments

Neuroscience of Sleep Part 2: Challenging Sleep Behaviors in Children

Sleep as a Nutrient for the Early Years

As you read in my article, Neuroscience of Sleep Part 1: Rock the Baby, the dream world, where children spend 40% of their childhood, can be better understood with an understanding of the neuroscience of challenging sleep behaviors in children. Sleep is a nurturing nutrient that is essential for empowered child development. However, some children experience challenges in getting sufficient sleep. Many children have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep.

We live in a world built on balance. Opposites create opportunities for us to thrive. Universally, we have night and day. Humans are aligned with this balance, as we need restorative sleep in order to flow with life force energy that keeps us moving throughout the day.

Sleep is the foundation for life.

Science of Sleep

There are numerous studies that have underscored the role of sleep for children’s development. The following are a few select studies that look at the neuroscience of sleep and its importance for a child’s well-being.

It is important to note that many studies have found proper sleep to be a preventing factor in the development of cognitive and behavioral problems in mid-childhood.

University of Colorado Boulder

While children slumber their brains work to build and solidify neural connections between the brain hemispheres creating a bridge between the left and right brain. This bridge is the corpus callosum. This bridge serves as the infrastructure for speedy communication between brain hemispheres as an adult. When the brain hemispheres are symmetrically aligned and connected learning, creativity, and memory are optimized.

A study by the, University of Colorado Boulder, found that the strength of connectivity between the left and right hemispheres grew 20% in one night’s sleep. This study also demonstrated that neural pruning occurred at great levels during a child’s sleep. I discuss the importance of neural pruning in my article, Authentic Alignment & Modeling Self-Regulation.

Michigan State University

The University of Colorado Boulder’s study findings are synergistic to a research published by Michigan State. This research demonstrated that alignment between the left and right hemispheres is crucial in preventing learning disabilities.

“The Sleeping Child Outplays the Adult’s Capacity to Convert Implicit into Explicit Knowledge”

This paper published in, Nature Neuroscience, established that as we sleep our brains process and program what we have learned during the day into our brain. Children are able to do this more efficiently than adults thanks to a greater amount of deep sleep. At the end of the day when children are asleep, they are able to turn short-term memories into long-term knowledge. They are able to turn implicit information into explicit knowledge. This creates a foundation for all future learning. Having a strong foundation will lead to a child’s ability to learn easily later on.

Massachusetts General Hospital Academic Pediatrics Study

A research study published in, Academic Pediatrics, found that children age 3-7 who had insufficient sleep had problems with attention, peer relationships, and emotional control.

Elsie Taveras, the leading researcher of this study, reported…

“We found that children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age 7”

Many studies have also analyzed the link between a lack of sleep and a heightened risk for obesity. Taveras notes that the effects of insufficient sleep for cognitive and behavioral functioning, such as inhibition and impulsivity, may lead to obesity. Children who are not receiving enough sleep may consume high-caloric foods in unhealthy amounts.

Sleep Deprivation or ADHD?

When adults are overtired, they become irritable and lethargic. When children are overtired, they seem to be bouncing off the walls with energy. A child who is overtired may display signs such as waking up frequently through the night, waking up early at night and during naps, night terrors, crying, hyperactivity, and uncontrollable laughing.

I will briefly discuss the role sleep plays in ADHD and ADHD type behaviors for early childhood. ADHD is a widely discussed topic and there are many varying beliefs and attitudes about its diagnoses and treatment. My perspective is that there are many possible contributing factors that play into the behaviors that are diagnosed as ADHD. ADHD cannot be officially diagnosed until age 4 but before that there can be signs of ADHD.

There are many common behaviors that have been identified as correlates of sleep deprivation or disrupted sleep in children. These behaviors are very similar to the symptoms of ADHD.

These symptoms are:

Problems paying attention

Problems focusing



Disturbed mood


Lack of impulse control

It is important to recognize that if your child is demonstrating any of these behaviors it may be due to a lack of sleep rather than ADHD. If you are concerned that your child may have ADHD work on improving his or her sleep to see if the symptoms resolve naturally.

Some children are misdiagnosed with ADHD when the root cause of their behavior is a sleep disorder. ADHD is the most commonly misdiagnosed behavior disorder.

If you choose to consult a pediatrician or family doctor request an in-depth analysis of alternate explanations for the symptoms your child is expressing. Also, ensure that the professional is looking at all of the child’s symptoms as a whole rather than focusing on hyperactivity, distractibility, and inattention. It is becoming increasingly common for inattention to be seen as an apparent sign of ADHD. While inattention is one of the three primary symptoms of ADHD it can also be due to a whole host of other possibilities.

*If you decide that your child would benefit from taking ADHD medication it is important to note that one of the most common side effects is trouble sleeping.

Magnesium Deficiency

Behavior is not only a communication of internal feeling states but can also be a communication of healthy nutrition or a lack thereof.

Magnesium is a magical nutrient required for peaceful sleep.

Signs of magnesium deficiency include:




Poor sleep


Cramps or stomach aches

Growing pains




Magnesium works to calm the central nervous system. It is a natural sedative, resulting in the ability to relax into deep sleep that lasts all night!

For children, magnesium is especially important as it is a potential cause of growing pains. Growing pains are often what wakes children up in the middle of the night.

Magnesium is an essential nutrient that is required for the health of bones, teeth, muscles, and joints.

Children can take a magnesium supplement for sleep but my favorite way to use magnesium for sleep is to create a magic magnesium oil spray or lotion. Applying the oil transdermally can be a fun addition to your child’s bedtime routine.

Here is a link that will show you how to create the oil:

Riveting Routine

Consistency is central to an effective routine. Once the routine has been established it is essential that it is employed consistently, every time. Children need time to adapt to a new routine. On average, it takes a few weeks for a child to fully adjust to a new routine. When working through this adjustment period there may be small changes to the routine that will help it to flow more naturally. Only make one change at a time and make sure you allow your child enough time to adapt before implementing another change.

Step 1: Review your current routine, write it down if that works for you. Think about when your child begins to display signs of sleepiness. If there is challenging behavior, when does it typically start? What time(s) does your child wake in the night? What times does your child usually wake up? Does your child seem well-rested in the morning?

Step 2: Decide what time you want your child to be asleep at. Watch your child’s behavior during the evening (typically 4-6pm) for signs of tiredness and note around what time these signs begin to show. When signs begin to arise begin the bedtime routine. In the future, plan your routine to start about 30-45 minutes before you want your child to be asleep. The goal is to get your child in bed before he or she is overtired.

You can keep a log of when your child falls asleep and compare the nights to identify which time resulted in the best sleep.

When you decide the time, stick to it! Your child will be able to adapt to this new bedtime much faster if there is consistency and predictability.

Step 3: Find a bed time ritual that works for your family.

Give your child a verbal warning that it is about to be time to get ready for bed. This can be a 10 or 5 minute warning given at the same time every day.

Suggestions for bedtime:

Warm bath

Put on pajamas

Read a story

Play soothing music

Pick out a favorite stuffed animal

Sing a song


Special goodnight as you leave



A New Theory About ADHD and Sleep

ADHD and Sleep Disorders: Are Kids Getting Misdiagnosed?

The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children

Poor Sleep in Early Childhood Linked to Later Congnitive and Behavioral Problems

Sleep Strengthens Healthy Brain Connectivity

The Sleeping Child Outplays the Adult’s Capacity to Convert Implicit into Explicit Knowledge

Shedding New Light on Learning Disorders

Connections in the Brains of Young Children Strengthens During Sleep, CU-Boulder Study Finds

What is the Relationship Between Sleep and Brain Development in Infants and Young Children?