Witnessing Violence Disrupts Sleep in Children


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Sleep deprivation and disturbances impact a child’s health. Image by Mikael Häggström

Sleepy Kids, and the Far-Reaching Effects of Sleep Disturbance

When kids have disturbed sleep, it has more of an effect than just making them a little grumpy.

A lack of good sleep can impact school performance, cause safety issues, and even create cause health problems.

Dr. Spilsbury explains that, “Children who don’t get enough sleep may have problems in cognitive, psychological, and social functioning. They may have difficulty thinking and paying attention in school, difficulty concentrating on their work. They may be more prone to accidents, including vehicular accidents if they are adolescents who are driving.

They may be more irritated, cranky, and moody during the day.  Lack of adequate sleep generally means children will feel sleepy or drowsy during the day and may fall asleep in school. Lack of sleep has also been linked to health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, and depression.”

Talking and being together can help children feel secure. Photo by Eric Ward

Kids Who Experience Violence: Recommendations for Parents and Caregivers

Decoded Science asked Dr. Spilsbury if he had any recommendations for the parents of children who witness violent acts, and what parents and caregivers can do to help promote healthy sleep habits.

“Families should be aware that witnessing violence can affect children in many ways, including their sleep behavior.  Parents should talk to their health care provider about the sleep problems and see if help from a psychologist or other trained professional might be warranted.  In terms of what these parents/caregivers do, first talk to their children to see if the children are having sleep problems. Sometimes, parents aren’t aware that their child is having trouble falling or staying asleep. If possible, parents can help their children relax at night before bed, or during the night if children are waking up, and try to reduce unwarranted fears or concerns.  As with any child trying to sleep, making the environment more ‘sleep friendly’ in terms of reducing unwanted noise can’t hurt.  Again, talking to a health care provider about the sleep problems is a good idea.”

Dr. Spilsbury’s study sheds light on how violent acts can impact a child’s sleep and other aspects of the child’s life. Parents and caregivers of children who experience or witness violent acts need to be aware of how it affects their sleep so that they can professional help if needed.


Spilsbury, J. Association between exposure to violence and objectively measured sleep characteristics: a pilot longitudinal study. (2012). Presented at  SLEEP 2012, the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Accessed June 13, 2012.

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