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I often talk about a sleep deficit when giving advice for sleeping. The idea of sleep deficit comes from the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child written by Marc Weissbluth, M.D.
What is a Sleep Deficit?
A sleep deficit is what happens when your child doesn’t get enough sleep. Sleep deficits grow over time. Just like if you owe money and you are paying interest each month and the amount you owe grows, if your child continually gets less sleep than is ideal, the deficit grows.
A sleep deficit is when your child isn’t getting enough sleep and the effects add up over time.
When your child has a sleep deficit, your child is not getting enough sleep. If the sleep stays the same each day (or less), then the deficit will only grow. “…there is a progressive worsening in a child’s mood and performance even when the amount of lost sleep each day or night is constant” (page 116). This is why when you make a change in sleep, it can take a couple of weeks before you see the negative effects from that sleep change. Any time you have a sleep problem, look at the last couple of weeks and consider what has changed.
“A constant small deficit in sleep produces a cumulative reduction in daytime alertness” (page 116).
If your child is not getting enough sleep, your child will become less alert, more grumpy, more needy, and have a harder time sleeping over time. Remember, sleep begets sleep. Overly tired children have a hard time sleeping. As Weissbluth says, it isn’t logical but it is biological (see page 229).
What does sleep deficit mean in real-life application?
A sleep deficit is something to watch out for when sleep changes ever. This is especially true when dropping naps. I see it most often when dropping the morning nap. That transition time is hard, and people sometimes move to just one nap a day sooner than is best for the child and things backfire.
Like Weissbluth says, sleep deficits accumulate over time. You might drop to one nap and have it be great for a few days, then things get a little muddled, and two weeks later you have a 16 month old taking a one hour nap total each day. If you have recently dropped a nap and your child starts to have napping problems, consider the possibility that your child is not getting enough sleep and a sleep deficit has grown.
Signs Your Child has a Sleep Deficit
- Your child wakes up grumpy. “Upon awakening, well-rested children are in good cheer and are able to play by themselves” (page 116). Do note, however, that most newborns wake up crying. It takes several months before you can expect a baby to start waking up happy consistently–probably around 4-6 months old.
- Your child has a hard time falling asleep.
- Your child takes short naps.
- Your child wake early in the morning.
- Your child’s behavior is worsening.
What To Do If Your Child Has a Sleep Deficit
When you explain a situation to me and I say I think there is a sleep deficit going on, it means that I think it sounds like your child isn’t getting enough sleep overall and is starting to have negative impact from the lack of sleep.
You need to figure out a way to get your child having more sleep in a 24 hour period. This means you need to figure out why your child isn’t getting the sleep she needs. You might need to add in a nap. You might need to start the nap earlier in the day. You might need to have an earlier bedtime. You might even need more physical exercise and stimulation each day. Be sure to look through my Index of Sleep Problems for a lot of posts that will help you brainstorm.