Are Your Children Sleep-Deprived?

It’s about that time: the start of the school year. Bleary-eyed kids everywhere are dragged from bed, thrown into clothing, handed an energy bar and glass of juice, and shuttled off to spend hours sitting at a desk. They come home, do hours of homework, squeeze in some screen time, squeeze some vaguely edible goo into their mouths, update their Facebook status, post a few Instagram pics, and climb into bed by 10 PM sharp, Snapchatting their way to the land of Nod. Then it starts all over again.

I’m exaggerating, a bit. Things aren’t this bad—childhood Facebook usage is actually down! But too many children aren’t getting enough sleep.

How Much Sleep Do Kids Need?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that:

Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

How Are Kids Doing?

According to a 2004 study of American kids’ sleep habits commissioned by the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Infants get 12.7 hours—low end of normal.
  • 1 to 3 year olds get 11.7 hours—low end of normal.
  • Preschoolers get 10.4 hours—low end of normal.
  • Elementary school kids get 9.5 hours—low end of normal.

That was 2004, before smartphones, tablets, and the meteoric rise of digital technology. Seeing as how the presence of technology in the homes and bedrooms of our children can reduce the amount of sleep they get, I’d wager that sleep has only gotten worse. It has.

But just because kids are getting less sleep on average doesn’t mean your kids are. The average of the population doesn’t say anything about the individual. It’s just an indication that the problem is widespread—and that it’s something you should honestly assess to make sure you’re not contributing to the trend.

What you can do short of tracking their sleep with an Oura ring is to watch for the obvious symptoms of inadequate sleep.

They shouldn’t be yawning all the time, or blatantly drowsy and exhausted.

They should be alert, engaged. Not every kid will bounce off the walls or be a constant blur of energy, of course.

They shouldn’t have trouble getting up in the morning.

They shouldn’t fall asleep immediately.

They shouldn’t be prone to meltdowns over nonsense.

Parents know when their kids haven’t had enough sleep. Deep down, they know.

Just How Important Is Sleep?

We adults know. If we don’t get enough sleep, we get horrible brain fog. We have trouble forming complete sentences. We feel confused and anxious for no apparent reason. We forsake the gods of our ancestors to prostrate ourselves before coffee. In fact, the most serious consequences and symptoms of sleep deprivation are all mental and psychological.

During sleep, we clear out old memories to make room for new ones. Without sleep, we forget what we’ve just learned. We arguably don’t learn without sleep. The memories simply don’t take.

During sleep, we prune errant connections between neurons. Without sleep, we can’t prune the brain plaque that can eventually lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If sleep deprivation interferes with an adult’s brain function to such a degree, what does sleep deprivation do to a brain that’s still developing?

It can cause profound neuronal loss. When a kid is sleep deprived for long enough, their brains actually shrink.

It promotes aberrant connectivity patterns in the fronto-limbic, a region of the brain involved in emotion regulation (tantrums, anyone?).

It impairs performance in the classroom.

Because that’s the most important part of childhood. Heck, it’s why human childhood takes so long—we need time to develop that impressive brain. A baby giraffe might pour out of his mother and instantly clamber to his feet, able to walk. He’s clumsy, but he can walk.

As humans, our brains are almost everything. They’re our most powerful tools. They allow us to manipulate language, numbers, reality itself. Without our brains, we’re rather unimpressive relative to other animals. Our strength, agility, explosiveness, and speed can’t compare. Your average black bear could outrun Usain Bolt, outfight Conor McGregor, and outswim Michael Phelps. We need our brains. As a parent, it’s important that you do everything you can to encourage and enable your kid’s brain development, or at least remove the barriers that impede it. Bad sleep is the biggest impediment there is.

Sleep doesn’t just affect brain development and function. There are metabolic effects, too. Just as poor sleep can increase insulin resistance and lead to obesity in adults, poor sleep can make your kids insulin resistant and overweight.

What Can You Do?

Limit Their Blue Light Exposure At Night

This could take the form of candles and warm lighting. This could mean no TV or screens at night. This could mean buying a pair of child-size blue blocking shades. Or maybe it’s all three at once. Whatever you do, make sure your kids aren’t bathing in blue light toward the end of the day—it can throw off your circadian rhythm and make getting to sleep at a reasonable time harder.

Candle lighting could be a great way to expose your kids to safe fire behavior, by the way. Letting them light the candles will get them involved, get them enthusiastic about the new practice, and teach them how to handle themselves around fire. Win, win, win.

Increase Their Blue Light Exposure During the Day

The flip-side of blue light avoidance at night is the fact that our bodies expect it during the day, and that getting a lot of natural light (which includes significant portions of blue) in the morning and afternoon also establishes a healthy circadian rhythm. In fact, daytime light exposure increases their resistance to blue light at night. 

With recess taking a huge hit these days, kids are spending fewer and fewer hours outside immersed in natural light. That should change.

Give Your Kids a Diet High In Carotenoids

Certain carotenoids don’t convert to retinol, instead making their way to the eye to protect against blue light absorption. They are astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin.

Salmon, shrimp, and krill oil for astaxanthin. Wild salmon astaxanthin is more bioavailable than farmed, but farmed is still pretty good.

For lutein and zeaxanthin, you’ll want to incorporate leafy greens and orange egg yolks. Kale, spinach, collards, chard, and mustard greens are among the best sources, while darker yolks are also great sources. Eat both; I suspect yolks might be easier to incorporate into a picky kid’s diet than kale.

Give Your Kids Plenty of Opportunities To Move, Play, Exercise, and Be Engaged With the World

Although the research is mixed on this topic, with some studies finding that the most active kids actually sleep a little less than the most sedentary kids, I’m going with a parent’s intuition. Whenever my kids were particularly active, they had no trouble getting to bed at a reasonable time. It wasn’t just physical, either. If we had a party at the house and the kids spent all day interacting with friends and other children, they were very easy to put to bed.

Have a Bedtime Routine

The routine itself doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have one and stick to it. That alone has been shown to reduce problematic sleep behavior in babies and toddlers, improve night waking, help children fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, and—not insignificantly—reduce maternal stress.

Be Consistent

The human body is made of biological clocks. Everything you do, from eating and exercising to sleeping, works better when you have a schedule. That way, your cellular clocks know what to expect and can assemble the physiological mise en place rather than rush around in panic mode because you’re completely unpredictable.

Set a bedtime and stick to it. Studies show that kids with parents who establish bedtimes and actually enforce them get more sleep. Furthermore, irregular sleep habits make it harder to establish a healthy circadian rhythm.

Exceed the Minimum

Common isn’t normal. Many things are common, like cooking with seed oils and watching five hours of TV every day. But they aren’t normal—they aren’t congruent with our biology. Kids deserve the opportunity to sleep as much as they can. If they’ll go an hour more than what the experts say they need, so be it. They probably need it.

Let Sleep Ensue Naturally

If you’re doing everything right (proper light exposure, good sleep hygiene, good diet, plenty of activity during the day, a routine), your kid will probably get sleepy at about the right time. The beauty of establishing a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine is that it will train your kid to naturally get sleepy at the around the same time each day. What you establish becomes the “right time.”

What you should avoid are struggles over sleep.

Naps Count

Naps count toward a child’s daily sleep requirement, so let them happen. Just be cautious about timing. In my experience, under-2s can take a nap whenever without ruining their bedtime; after age 2, nap timing becomes very crucial.

If you were paying attention, you probably noticed that most of the content in today’s post applies equally well to adults. By all means, take these tips and apply it to your life, too. But definitely make sure your kids are getting enough sleep. It could quite literally help determine their trajectory through life and realize their potential. Good sleep is foundational.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Do your kids (or you) get enough sleep? What methods, tips, and tricks have worked for you and your family?


Hale L, Guan S. Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: a systematic literature review. Sleep Med Rev. 2015;21:50-8.

Jan JE, Reiter RJ, Bax MC, Ribary U, Freeman RD, Wasdell MB. Long-term sleep disturbances in children: a cause of neuronal loss. Eur J Paediatr Neurol. 2010;14(5):380-90.

Robinson JL, Erath SA, Kana RK, El-sheikh M. Neurophysiological differences in the adolescent brain following a single night of restricted sleep – A 7T fMRI study. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2018;31:1-10.

Beebe DW, Field J, Milller MM, Miller LE, Leblond E. Impact of Multi-Night Experimentally Induced Short Sleep on Adolescent Performance in a Simulated Classroom. Sleep. 2017;40(2)

Schalch W, Cohn W, Barker FM, et al. Xanthophyll accumulation in the human retina during supplementation with lutein or zeaxanthin – the LUXEA (LUtein Xanthophyll Eye Accumulation) study. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2007;458(2):128-35.

Pesonen AK, Sjöstén NM, Matthews KA, et al. Temporal associations between daytime physical activity and sleep in children. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(8):e22958.

Mindell, J. A., Telofski, L. S., Wiegand, B., & Kurtz, E. S. (2009). A Nightly Bedtime Routine: Impact on Sleep in Young Children and Maternal MoodSleep32(5), 599–606.

Phillips AJK, Clerx WM, O’brien CS, et al. Irregular sleep/wake patterns are associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):3216.

TAGS:  mental health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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20 thoughts on “Are Your Children Sleep-Deprived?”

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  1. Almost everyone knows about vitamin A’s role in vision, but this little guy does so much more including regulating our genes and setting our circadian rhythms. When blue light from sunshine enters our eyes, vitamin A translates it into a signal that tells our brain it is daytime. When this signal wanes, our brain knows that it is nighttime. This means that real vitamin A, in the form of retinol (from liver), plays an essential role in helping us fall asleep on time, get high quality sleep, sleep long enough, wake up feeling rested, and staying alert and energetic throughout the day.

    Similarly, magnesium is an essential mineral with numerous roles in the body. Magnesium is essential for the synthesis of DNA and proteins, for the generation of energy, and for specific actions in different organs such as the eyes. Over 300 enzymes are dependent on magnesium for proper function. This includes those that regulate our circadian rhythms.

    Yet, more than half of Americans don’t meet the average requirement for vitamin A (or) magnesium through diet.

    Of course, the solution is rather simple: eat your liver. Nutrition authorities like Chris Masterjohn (of Mastering Nutrition) and the Weston A Price Foundation (WAPF) recommend 1–2 servings of liver per week, or about 6–8 ounces per week.

    As for magnesium, I personally like a transdermal magnesium oil spray and a oral supplement because it’s virtually impossible to get enough magnesium from diet alone… This is due to our modern day nutrient depleted soils).

    It’s also been shown that people with higher daily exposure to EMFs appear to suffer worse sleep, which may be owed to alterations in brain function and/or impaired cell signaling by way of voltage-gated calcium channels (vgcc). Trust me, you don’t need wifi, nor orther EMF devices, when you’re sleeping.

    I love that this article focuses on our kids… thank you Mark! If it’s okay, I’d like to shamelessly plug our Ultimate Ancestral Guide To Better Sleep [12 Steps] here…

    1. Hello, I am curious: how do you reconcile your “one 5000 cal meal a day” concept with the claim that a calorie intake in excess of calorie metabolism leads to electron leaks & superoxide formation?

      1. … this of course being relevant to the present article on the grounds that one shouldn’t eat large meals before sleep… but I have generalized the question and I am now questioning the more extreme variants of intermittent fasting.

  2. Hey Mark- great article and very timely! On the subject of sleep, I was wondering if you had any tips or tricks for new or expecting parents who know they just won’t be getting a restful 9 hours of sleep for the first few months of baby’s existence. What should they do to prepare for a season of constant interrupted sleep so that they don’t lose too much of their health and sanity? Thanks!

    1. Hey Ryan, I found myself asking that same question with our first child and 6 years later with the second. If you haven’t already, I’d check out Shawn Stevenson’s book Sleep Smarter. He also has a podcast (The Model Health Show) episode on the topic of improving the quality of sleep for parents and their kids – you might find it valuable.

      What I’d say in short helped me and my wife was to embrace the fact that all babies want to sleep. I’d also encourage you to challenge your own belief right now that you’re going to be constantly interrupted. How do you know that? People would tell us that we’d never sleep the same again, but it’s those same people who didn’t have a sleep time ritual of their own. How could they expect their children to sleep when their own sleep schedule lacked structure?

      I’d recommend experimenting with a routine, holding to it like a sacred ritual, remaining flexible when a few nights go sideways, and remembering that all babies want to sleep. Does it require you to prioritize it over other things? Absolutely. Does it go perfectly every night without any interruptions? Absolutely not.

      You might also find you sleep MORE than you expected, especially if you align when you go to bed with your baby. So long Netflix and hello 9pm bed time! Please don’t mistake this for sage advice; simply sharing with you my n=1 experience because your question reminded me of where I was at 12 months ago. Lastly, I recommend you purchase the Hussh noise machine especially if the baby is going be sharing a room with you for a while. Even when our baby moved upstairs, I bought one for myself. It’s fantastic for traveling/staying in hotels.

      You got this!

    2. Tips from a 1st time Mom at 42 (9 years ago). I fed my daughter right before I went to bed at my normal time. around 10:30-11. I breastfed, but she bit one side, so I started pumping that side right away. My husband, a night owl by nature, had breast milk to feed by bottle for the next feeding, 1-2am. I got up for the next feeding, so I had probably 5 hours a night, then a little after feeding around 4am or so. I kept pumping so he always had something to feed at night. At 42, I never would have made it without the tag team approach. Also, Mom should sleep some during the day with baby and take it easy, especially first 6 weeks. Enjoy, it’s a great journey!! P.S. — when I see kids, especially melting down in stores in the afternoon, it’s almost always clear they need a nap and sadly many parents out of touch with that fact!

  3. Is this a typo or just bad advice? “They should be prone to meltdowns over nonsense.”

    1. Aren’t we all prone to meltdowns over nonsense? Kids all the more so, especially if there is a dip in the sleep and or food.

  4. “update their Facebook status”??? Come on, Mark! Facebook is for us antiques!

  5. My kids were always in bed by 9 pm throughout most of their school years. By the time they reached high school they were allowed to stay up until 10 or 11, depending on what time they had to get up. There were never any TV sets, electronic gadgets, or cellphones in their bedrooms.

    When they were younger than school age, they usually went to bed at 7 pm–as much to get them out of my hair for the evening as for them to get enough sleep so as not to be cranky the next day.

    If you insist on a regular pattern it will soon become habit, and kids will more or less become sleepy “on demand.” At least mine always did.

  6. To be fair, black bears are not the average animal. I think we compare very favorable with opossums.

  7. This is really one of a litany of great failures that we are continuing to have as parents. We could not get those boys to sleep on time. Our first grader was having increasingly serious behavior problems, and our pre-Ker was simply driving my wife mad. So, for the last year-and-a-half, we’ve been giving them melatonin, a 1 1/2 mg gummy every evening 15 minutes before bed. It works great, although they get pretty surly if they don’t hit the rack in short order and it’s not very reïnforcing when you’re reading what you think is a pretty interesting story and everybody falls asleep. Also, the six-year-old really needs less sleep than his brother, so he is ready to GO around 5:30 AM. When the school year starts, we plan to go running when he wakes up so everybody else can sleep.
    My big worry was that they’d develop a tolerance for it and we’d have to keep increasing the dose, but that hasn’t happened. Also, our pediatrician is not totally on board, pointing out we don’t know the long term effects of daily melatonin use in children. But! We know the short term effects of staying up into the middle of the night, and we don’t like them.
    We do occasionally run trials of what happens when you stop the gummies, or really replace them with placebo gummies*. They haven’t changed.
    If I run the younger one hard all day — this usually happens in the mountains — I can get him to collapse, but the eight-year-old won’t drop off until 11 or so.
    So… melatonin. It’s what’s for bedtime.

    * Placebo gummies are not a product you can buy. Vitamin gummies or just straight candy gummies are what we use.

  8. When our first was old enough to climb out of his bed at night, he always wanted to get into our bed. We put a flashlight by his bed & told him if it was dark, he was allowed to (since the word NO was triggering to him) get into the sleeping bag on the floor next to Mom’s side of the bed. If it was light out, he was allowed get into our bed; this worked fine except for in the spring when we changed the clocks. It eliminated talking and trying to reason with a small child in the middle of the night. His younger sister never got out of bed at night.

  9. My 8 yr-old grand-daughter is in public school 7-1/2 hours a day; she gets 27 minutes of outdoor time for recess. 27 minutes! Kids these days are sleep-deprived, sunlight-deprived, nature-deprived, nourishment-deprived, imagination-deprived, free-play-deprived, childhood deprived! What a blessing it is to ‘unschool’ her everyday during after-school care and provide all these things!

  10. I love a good sleep so have always prioritised a good bedtime routine with my children so that I can get my sleep in too. Even though we’re in summer break they still have the same bedtime & routine as I’ve discovered that any change will just lead to grumpy kids. My 6 year old sleeps 7:30pm-6am the 2 year old 6:30pm-6am having naps when she needs them I am strict with myself too always going to bed at 9:30pm with a view to being asleep by 10pm. I cannot understand how people can prioritise watching t.v over a good night’s sleep, I hate how I feel on a bad night’s sleep & how awful a parent I can be.

  11. Sorry for posting here but is something wrong with your Contact page? I’ve been trying to send you a question for several days, and I’ve tried three different browsers, but it just keeps spinning endlessly when I click on “Send”. ?

  12. Hey Mark, thanks for sharing your thought on this on this sleeping deprived disease. It’s really beneficial to know how can anyone find out if their child is sleeping deprived and what to do to cure it completely.

  13. I have no children, but i have a niece. After this article, i will be more concerned about her health. Especially about her sleep, thanks for sharing