Why Your Kids’ Sleep Issues Can Impact Your Health

Teaching kids healthy sleep habits can have mental and physical health benefits for the whole family.

A father lies on his side in bed while his small daughter cuddles up beside him. Kids' sleeping habits can impact parents' health.
Lisa Wiltse / Getty Images / The Image Bank RF

Let’s face it: Kids can be difficult sleepers.

Frequent nighttime awakenings. Relying on their parents for comfort (like reading books). Staying up way too late watching TV as teens. No matter the sleep issue of the moment, how kids sleep can directly impact how parents sleep — and play a key role in a parent’s physical and mental wellbeing.

When kids learn healthy sleep habits, it can help them feel happier, learn more easily, and experience a whole range of other health benefits. But teaching your kids about sleep also matters for your own health. Read on to learn how children’s sleep habits impact parents’ sleep, plus everything you should know about modeling healthy sleep at home.

Common sleep issues for kids

Up to 50% of all children will experience a sleep problem. One of the most common sleep issues affecting children is parasomnia, an umbrella term that includes nighttime disturbances like sleepwalking, sleep talking, and sleep terrors or nightmares.

“Sleepwalking is not uncommon for young kids, and neither are nightmares,” explains behavioral sleep medicine specialist and Sleep Advisor to Sleep.com Jade Wu, Ph.D. “So when these bizarre, somewhat scary things happen to a child’s sleep, the parents can be confused about what to do or be very distressed seeing their kid having a nightmare.”

However, it’s estimated that only 4% of parasomnia cases will continue past adolescence.

Beyond parasomnia, kids can experience many sleep issues commonly associated with adults. Anywhere from 1% to 5% of kids have obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which blocked airflow causes nighttime awakenings. Restless leg syndrome, an almost uncontrollable nighttime urge to move the legs, is seen in 1.5 million children and adolescents.

Behavioral insomnia, another common culprit affecting children’s sleep, is experienced by up to 25% of kids. In these situations, children struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. They might resist going to bed or turn to their parents for help in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep, asking for a bedtime story, a glass of water, or to sleep with their parents — all of which can impact an entire family’s ability to get quality sleep.

The effect of children’s sleep habits on parents

Numerous studies have explored the child-parent sleep dynamic. Researchers have found that a child’s sleep quality predicts a mother’s sleep quality — which, in turn, can affect maternal daytime functioning. In one recent study, parents of children with sleep disorders experienced heightened levels of tension, fatigue, and anger. Parents were also shown to be more vulnerable to high pre-sleep arousal and poor overall sleep, which are indicative of insomnia.

That lack of sleep can wreak havoc on mood and functioning. “Somebody who is really being awakened a lot during the night might see irritability and sleepiness,” explains sleep specialist and neurologist Dr. Chris Winter, a Sleep Advisor to Sleep.com and the author of “The Rested Child,” a comprehensive look at sleep and children. “With [parents’] mental health, we know fragmented sleep creates more anxiety and depression.”

In fact, studies show that waking up frequently throughout the night reduced positive mood far greater than restricted sleep, or delayed bedtime. Each consecutive night of disrupted sleep further reduced positive moods. Over time, this type of disrupted sleep can lead to insomnia.

Winter compares these awakenings to sleep apnea. “We look at patients who have sleep apnea and we know they are prone to heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and weight problems,” he says. One study found that fragmented sleep increases the risk of atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the artery walls that’s linked to heart attacks and strokes.

Yet sleep deprivation doesn’t only affect parents, it impacts kids as well. A recent study found that mothers experiencing a lack of sleep are more prone to permissive parenting, or parenting with lax or inconsistent discipline. While the exact cause is hard to pinpoint, researchers believe this may be due to exhaustion or irritability from sleeplessness. On the flipside, the same study found that mothers sleeping well were less likely to engage in permissive parenting, which can lead to behavioral issues down the line.

Sleep deprivation can affect the entire family. A survey found that more than half of American parents lose an average of 30 minutes of sleep per night from a child’s night awakenings. Daytime sleepiness in both mothers and fathers has also been directly linked to child daytime sleepiness, pointing to a cycle where one party’s sleep impacts the other and vice-versa.

For adolescents in particular, family dynamics can play a huge role in sleep. Research shows that parenting style, family problems, and home atmosphere can contribute to lack of sleep for parents and youth. Parental warmth is also impacted by sleep quality, meaning parents are more prone to showing healthy emotions towards their children after receiving good sleep.

How parents model sleep for children

A young boy sleeps soundly in the bed. Kids sleeping habits can have an impact on parents' health and the whole family.
Tetra Images / Getty Images / Digital Vision

Some sleep disturbances in children, like obstructive sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, can be primary; that means they’re not influenced by external factors. However, Wu says many are influenced by their environment. “A lot of [children’s] sleep behaviors are learned from role modeling and from the household culture,” she explains.

Factors like shift work, different people putting children to bed (such as nannies or grandparents), and inconsistent schedules overall can sometimes create a lack of stability in children’s sleep-wake habits. “That might result in more sleep symptoms,” Wu says, “and could actually give a kid more nightmares or more sleepwalking.”

This cycle can cause a lack of sleep or, in the long-term, lead to the development of poor sleep habits, Wu says. But it doesn’t mean there’s no solution. Consistency isn’t always possible, so Wu suggests creating a bedtime routine for children that can be applied by anyone putting them to bed, at any time. This can help a child understand it’s time for sleep.

“Parents play a big role in terms of their kids’ sleep quality,” Winter adds, “particularly in the way we talk about sleep.” He says normalizing discussions about sleep and making sleep an everyday part of household culture (like work or school) may help alleviate sleep issues.

Why sleep confidence matters

Children’s sleep habits can be stressful, scary, and downright difficult for parents to manage. But having confidence in helping your child get to bed (and stay in bed) can actually help them sleep better — and that’s a win for everyone in the family.

Studies have found that parents who reported feeling very or extremely confident in helping their children get age-appropriate levels of sleep saw their kids sleeping 0.67 hours more per day compared with parents who reported feeling only somewhat or not confident. Plus, in the same study, parents who slept longer themselves also saw their children sleeping longer — making it a positive cycle.

By learning more about sleep and increasing their confidence, Winter says parents can create a healthy sleep environment at home that’s conducive to all. “It starts by understanding sleep,” he explains. “It alleviates your own fears and anxieties you have about your sleep and your kids’ sleep, allowing you to communicate better with your children.”