According to a new study, kids who don't get enough sleep during preschool are more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships.
preschool girl falling asleep in bed
Credit: Elena Stepanova/Shutterstock

Neither one of my kids were great sleepers when they were little, so if this is actually true, I'm in big trouble. But according to a new study, if preschoolers don't get enough Zs, they are more likely to have trouble paying attention, controlling their emotions, and processing information later in childhood. Uh oh!

As part of the study, more than 1,000 moms filled out questionnaires about how much sleep their children got on average at ages six months, 3 years, and 7 years. In addition, mothers and teachers were sent surveys to evaluate each child's executive function and behavioral issues—including emotional symptoms and problems with conduct or peer relationships—when the kids were 7.

The findings? The sleepless kids had a significant decrease in both mental and emotional functioning.

"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," explained lead researcher Dr. Elsie Taveras, who added that the associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship. "If you think about it, these are the basic functions of a child's life. It really has implications on their ability to perform at school and home, and in relationships with their peers."

Makes sense. My daughter has always been one of those kids who can't function and starts lashing out if she doesn't get enough sleep for just one night. Though my son, on the other hand, can hit the hay for just a few hours a week and still be good to go—so obviously it all depends on the child. But in general, Dr. Taveras said kids 3 to 4 years old need 11 hours of sleep each day, while younger kids need more and older kids a little less.

Parents can help their kids get more sleep, she said, by making sure they avoid caffeine and sugar late in the day, keeping the bedroom quiet and adding dark curtains, and creating a regular bedtime routine. And while Tarares said the routine can be as simple as "bath, book, bed," both the bedtime and the procedure should remain exactly the same every single night.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.