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The Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Children, Adolescents and Adults

Written by Brenda. A | Accredited Exercise Physiologist

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation refers to a lack of sleep experienced by a person (3). The quantity of sleep required by an individual in order to feel well rested and functional is dependent on one’s age and lifestyle factors, for example activity level (3).

Why Is Sleep Important?

Sleep is regarded as important by experts due to its strong integration with human life and health (3). Additionally, sleep is integral for learning, performance, physical health and mental health (3). Consequently, insufficient sleep can have detrimental health effects.

Table 1

What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is thought to be caused by, but not limited to the following:

  • Physical – Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is considered the primary physical cause of sleep deprivation, which involves an episodic partial or complete upper airway obstruction (1).
  • Behavioural – Emotional factors such as stress, anxiety and mood disorders can contribute to sleep deprivation (1). Those who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and substance abuse, are more inclined to experience sleep deprivation (1).
  • Cultural – The onset of puberty and circadian rhythm disturbance i.e. delayed sleep phase syndrome, jet lag and night shift work can disrupt sleep (1). Late evening use of electronics, too much bedroom light, high caffeine consumption and high bedroom temperatures also discourage restorative sleep (1). In addition, irregular bedtimes and inconsistent bedtime rules for children can affect sleep quality (1).

What Are the Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprived children demonstrate a variety of emotional and behavioural disturbances including problematic behaviours, inattentiveness, anxiety, depression and hyperactivity (2). Adolescents and adults who experience sleep deprivation, report more depression, anxiety, anger, inattention, conduct problems, drug and alcohol use, impaired academic performance and suicide ideation (4, 6). They also report more fatigue, low energy, worse perceived health and symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and back aches (4, 6).

How is Sleep Deprivation Treated?

Medications are recommended for sleep problems only if behavioural therapy and modifications of sleep practices are unsuccessful (1). Otherwise, the following should be practised or considered:

  • Ethnicity and cultural values surrounding co-sleeping, daytime napping, night snacking, watching TV, and the importance of sleep.
  • Children with chronic night terrors or those with special needs, such as PTSD, ADHD, and ASD should be referred to a sleep specialist, child psychologist or psychiatrist for ongoing professional support.
  • Avoid naps late in the day.
  • Reduce high caffeinated and high sugar content food and drinks, especially late in the evening.
  • Implement a bedtime routine focused on quiet activities, such as reading or listening to mellow music.
  • Only use the bedroom for sleeping, not technology or eating.
  • Create a cool, dark and quiet space in the bedroom.



  1. Gerber, L. (2014). Sleep Deprivation in Children, A Growing Concern. Nursing Management, 45(8), 22-28
  2. Maski, K., & Kothare, S. (2013). Sleep Deprivation and Neurobehavioural Functioning in Children. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 89(20), 259-264
  3. Ming, X., Koransky, R., Kang, V., Buchman, S., Sarris, C., & Wagner, G. (2011). Sleep Insufficiency, Sleep Health Problems and Performance in High School Students. Sage Journals, 5, 71-79
  4. Roberts, E., & Duong, H. (2014). The Prospective Association Between Sleep Deprivation and Depression Among Adolescents. Oxford Academic, (37)2, 239-244
  5. Talbot, L., McGlinchey, E., Kaplan, K., Dahl, R., & Harvey, A. (2010). Sleep Deprivation in Adolescents and Adults: Changes in Affect. American psychological Association, 10(6), 831-841
  6. Sleep Health Foundation. (2022). How much sleep do we really need? Retrieved June 1, 2022, from