How to Fix Your Child’s Sleep Deficit

If your little one is not sleeping well, it might be due to a sleep deficit, or sleep debt. Learn the signs and how to fix it.

Toddler sleeping in bed

I often talk about a sleep deficit when giving advice for sleeping. You need to understand what a sleep deficit is, what it looks like, why it is a problem, and what to do about it in order to help your little one get great naps and have solid nighttime sleep.

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, or a sleep debt, is what happens when your child doesn’t get enough sleep. Basically, it is the difference between the amount of sleep that should be happening and the amount of sleep that is happening. This is often referred to as sleep deprivation.

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.

When your child isn’t getting enough sleep and the effects add up over time, you have a sleep deficit.

Everyone can have a sleep deficit, even adults. So this is something to be aware of for your baby, toddler, preschooler, tween, teen, and yourself!

A sleep debt is a problem so far as a daily schedule goes, but it is also a medical problem that can lead to health concerns for adults such as diabetes, weight gain, stroke, headaches, memory loss, and irritability, among others.

Health Sleep Habits Happy Child book cover

What happens if there is a sleep deficit?

When your child has a sleep deficit, your child is not getting enough sleep. If the sleep totals 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. So you might drop a nap or lengthen a waketime when you shouldn’t have an not know it for a week or two. Things might seem fine at first, and then all of a sudden your little one is not sleeping well anymore.

Any time you have a sleep problem, look at the last couple of weeks and consider what has changed over the last couple of weeks.

“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.

This can seem illogical. We often think if we keep our child up longer, she will sleep better because she will be more tired. Sleep just doesn’t work that way. 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 occur. 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.

>>>Read: Adjusting the Schedule to Fix a Sleep Deficit

Sleep Deprived Pinnable Image

Signs Your Child has a Sleep Deficit

Here are some common signs of 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 wakes early in the morning.
  • Your child’s behavior is worsening. Tantrums are increasing as is disobedience.

Read: Tips to Get Baby Waking Up Happy From Naps

What To Do If Your Child Has a Sleep Debt

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 a negative impact from the lack of sleep.

To fix the sleep deficit, 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 so she is tired enough to sleep when it is time.

Common ways to fix a sleep deficit are:

  • Add in a nap
  • Lengthen a nap (start earlier or let it go longer)
  • Shorten waketime length
  • Start bedtime earlier
  • Start your day later
  • Start your one nap earlier in the day
  • Make sure your little one is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation to need to sleep when it is time

Now, you can’t really make up for lost sleep, but you can add in extra sleep until the body feels rested. As your little one recovers from a sleep debt, she might sleep more than she would otherwise. Once her body is caught up enough, she will settle into her new normal.

Sleep Debt Pinnable image


 If your child of any age is behind on sleep and feeling sleep deprived, work to add in a little extra sleep each day over time until he is caught up and able to fall into a natural sleep pattern. Respect the sleep needs of your individual child and do not push sleep milestones sooner than your little one is ready. 

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This post was originally published on this blog in November of 2014

17 thoughts on “How to Fix Your Child’s Sleep Deficit”

  1. Hi Valerie, I found this post really interesting as I've been wondering if a sleep deficit applies to my 10 month old. He used to wake up happy consistently from when he was about 3-4 months old but lately he has been waking up and crying (sometimes quite hysterically). This has been going on for about a month. I've always thought he is a 'low sleep needs' baby as his total daily sleep is always at the lower end of what is normal for his age. At the moment he takes 2 naps, about 1.5 hours each and sleeps about 10 hours at night, usually up for the day between 6-6:30. This has been pretty consistent for the past couple of months now. I have tried moving bedtime earlier by 15 minutes to see if that will help him sleep later in the morning but it is kind of hit and miss. Do you think waking up crying could be related to separation anxiety? As soon as he wakes up, he sits up in his crib and crawls over to the corner closes to the door and appears to be looking for company. As soon as I go in to get him he usually settles down pretty quickly. I just thought it was unusual for it to have gone on for as long as it has. It's kind of sad that he wakes up unhappy every single time and I miss him waking up happy and contented. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • It is possible it could be some sort or anxiety. Is there anything that changed around the time he started waking crying? Have you tried putting a safe stuffed animal in with him or some sort of lovey?

  2. Thanks for the response, I really appreciate it 🙂 We did go on an overseas holiday for 3 weeks and when we came back he had a hard time re-adjusting for about a week. I think it was a combination of the time difference and developmental phase (crawling, standing..). This was nearly 2 months ago now. His sleep now is good and the most consistent it has been. I have tried giving him a little stuffed teddy when he sleeps but he doesn't seem to show any affinity to it. It kind of just sits in his cot now. What are your thoughts on playing with him in his cot? I thought I might do that when he wakes up instead of picking him up straight away to try to associate wake up time with happy time. I wasn't sure if that would give him the wrong idea about the cot being a sleep space though?

    • I think that would be fine. It may or may not work, but I don't think he would get confused about they need to sleep in his bed. It is worth trying 🙂

  3. My son would sleep thru most nights until 6.5 mo. He began waking and crying every 2-3 hours. I would change him and or nurse in my room then put back in crib (once already asleep). Two months later he only sleeps about 9 hours a day total. I realize this does not seem like enough. I am recommended your page, I come cross this page and others. I realize I am swooping in too early! Last night I let him CIO each time he woke. 1st time 5 mins, 2nd time 15 mins, 3rd time 5 mins. Never had to go I there, he fell back asleep. I set limits with myself to help ease my stress abouth crying: if he stands or cries for more than 20 I'll go in. I almost caved on the 15 min one but he was laying down the whole time so I held strong. Thanks for your wealth of info! It helps!

  4. Hi Valerie, I know my daughter is sleep deprived because she's only about 5hrs sleep in 24hrs. But I just don't know what needs to be fixed. My daughter is 5wk old. Up to now, when I lay her down to nap, I'd have to get her asleep in my arms, then after 10min of supposed sleep she'd cry & I'd go in to pat at 10min intervals. It might take 2-3 times going in then she would sleep well the rest of the nap. The exception was after the 9:30pm feed/wake, then she would cry the whole nap without sleep. Four days ago she started not gaining weight each day. Yesterday after the 12:30PM feed/wake, she didn't sleep at all and this continued for the rest of the feedings until 12:30AM where she slept. We thought maybe it was a growth spurt. So today we fed her every 2hrs. She slept after the 1st feed/wake but then she has gone back to mostly no sleep. She did gain weight today but this girl just won't sleep. Am I missing something? Is she just refusing to sleep because I need to give the CIO more time since she will sleep being held? My husband is so frustrated that he said he's given up. I need help with this one. We have twin boys also & we need some peace to handle everything. Thanks in advance for any advice.

  5. Thanks for the quick reply. After rereading the book again, we inclined her bed. This has helped. I'm now working on getting better burps too. We've started making detailed notes on her crying & sleep so we can see if there's a pattern. While the dr says she doesn't have reflux, I think she has some similar pains from the spitup. I also think now, that maybe feeding her more during the supposed growth spurt probably put more pressure on her tummy. Your comments definitely got me thinking about what reflux/gas and how we might work on things. She has calmed down & is sleeping more, but there's still some rough cycles to work through. If we encounter more issues, I'll ask you. Thank you for the help!

    • I would try giving her gripe water and/or gas drops. I did gas drops after every feeding and gripe water before every nap for brinley. Good luck!

  6. Hi, I know this is an old post but I need help. My 6 week old doesn't nap well at home. She will nap a full 1.5/2 hours in her car seat on a walk or out and about. She will also sleep for 4-5 hour stretches at night, but when we are home I have to rock her and shush her before putting her in her bassinet only to have her wake 30 minutes later. I assume it's the 45 min intruder but why does it only effect her during the day in her bassinet? Am I over/under stimulating her before her nap time. Should I let her cry when she wakes early? Any help would be so appreciated.

  7. Hello, could you explain the more naps part and the extend naps, please? I have a 10 months old that sleeps independent at night and for naps. She was doing great, first nap 1:30 ish, second 2:00, third 50 min when she was 8-9 months. But suddently her naps started to shorten little by little, the first nap began to last 1:20, then 1:110, than 45-50 min. Same thing for the second nap. Than she started to refuse the thrid nap. At first I thought she was getting ready to 2 naps, but she always had a short awake window and she acctually was so tired by the time I was trying to put her down for the last nap that she would cry and refuse to take it. Now I am trying to make her rested again, she is doing 4 naps 40-50 min, sometimes one better nap that lasts 60-90 min. I am trying to keep her awake windows really short, around 1:50-2:00, and saving her energy. Is that ok? What else do you suggest that I could do? How long until I get by happy and rested baby back? 🙁

  8. Hi!
    I write here seeking for advice. I’ desperate. My son is 18m (in 5 days) and it seems that he has some sleep deprivation. He sleeps from 19 to 5am and naps start getting shorten (from 2 hours ish …. now only 1,5h).

    He dropped to one nap one month ago…. but because the early wakings we struggle to get things in place. I have tried A LOT, stealing him an extra nap, and an earlier bedtime but…. cos overtiredness it’s not working too much.

    I would appreciate if you could give me some tips and/or a starting schedule that can help him.

    thanks // Lara

    • Hello! Did the early waking start after you dropped to one nap a day or before?

      What do you do when he wakes early? I would recommend you leave him in his bed until it is time to get up. It is easy to wake early and get up and get going, but if he stays in bed, there is a good chance he will just go back to sleep.

      What is waking him at 8? WHY is he waking at 5? I would address that.

  9. Hello Valerie,
    Your post has opened my eyes. I thought my spirited 6 month old had low sleep needs. Since she was 3 months she would sleep 9 hours at night and 5 naps of only 30 minutes. At 6 months I can only get her to take 4 naps 30 minute. She is crabby after 12pm. I start seeing tiered signs at 40 minutes and I know she should be able to stay awake longer by now. Should I take her to the crib at 40 minutes to work on the sleep debt? She does go to sleep independently, but I have also discovered that she will sleep hours with a contact nap. Should I add in a daily contact nap to work on the sleep debt? Thank you so much for your help.

    • I would work to get her caught up on sleep first, then move toward getting he to sleep independently. It is best to sleep train when you aren’t in a sleep deficit.


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