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If your preschooler acts out in school, sleep disturbances could be to blame

Sleep image

Proper sleep can make all the difference in preschoolers' behavior.

Inadequate or irregular sleep can contribute to social problems in children, said John Bates, a professor of psychology at Indiana University Bloomington.

"Sleep is sometimes a miracle cure," Bates said. "You implement a reasonable bedtime every night and find you have a much more manageable kid."

In his work with preschoolers, Bates found that both amount of sleep and consistency of sleep patterns were linked to kids' ability to get along with others, respond to adult guidance and engage in complex tasks. Children who aren't getting enough sleep are more likely to be impulsive and uncooperative.

"These problems are more noticeable in a structured setting," Bates said, "so you might go all summer without realizing a child is sleep-deprived. When school starts again, it becomes clear that something is wrong."

Children aged 4 to 6 typically need 11 or 12 hours of sleep each night, but a regular bedtime can be as important as a full night of sleep. Shifting bedtimes can create a "jet lag" effect that disturbs the quality of sleep and may lead to difficulty focusing and regulating behavior.

In their clinical work with families with "oppositional" children who resist adult guidance, Bates and his colleagues teach parents how to establish a bedtime routine that helps children relax and make the transition into sleep. He suggests a simple routine that is pleasant for both parent and child and includes one-on-one quiet time.

"Keep this up seven days a week if you can," Bates said. "A well-rested child is a happier child."