Sleep problems that persist could affect children’s emotional development
Sleep. Many children make a sport out of resisting it, reaching Olympic levels of prowess in bedtime shenanigans.
And while night waking is a part of human sleep, requiring adult attention on every night wake is not only tiring for parents but may also be indicative of children’s overall ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation is an important skill gained during the early years, which helps children to maintain and focus attention and also control their own emotions and behaviours.
In the end, though, does it really matter if children aren’t sleeping well?
Longer-term effects of poor sleep
We analysed data for 3,000 children participating in a larger longitudinal study, with data collected every two years from birth to nine years. Our analysis found that if bedtime behaviours persist beyond infancy, this could have implications for children’s emotional and attentional development two years later, beginning from the first year, and up to the age of nine.
The research focused on behavioural sleep problems such as bedtime resistance, persistent night waking and trouble falling asleep and resettling independently. These are distinct from medical sleep problems, such as sleep apnoea, which is difficulty with breathing during sleep, and from the length of time that a child sleeps.
Infants naturally need a lot of support at bedtime and during the night. For most children (70%) such sleep behaviours steadily improved.
At five years old, these children showed no regular ongoing sleep problems. They were independently settling themselves at bedtime and at night waking (unless sick or at other upsetting times).
For the remaining 30% of children, these behavioural sleep problems escalated from birth to five years. These children required more and more adult support around sleep across this time period.
In the classroom at six years of age, teachers of this group of children rated them as more hyperactive, emotionally unsettled and disorganised, and as having poorer social skills. This is likely due to sleep problems influencing brain development over time in a way not conducive to developing self-regulation skills.
Children with sleep problems may have over-reactive emotional responses to events during the day and be preoccupied with trying to regulate their emotional system. This limits their opportunity to focus and benefit from activities that build attentional regulation.
Of course, not all five-year-old children with sleep problems will struggle to adjust to school, but for those who do, sleep might be an important target for change.
The research detected differences in the extent to which parents reported their child had a moderate or severe sleep problem for children later diagnosed with clinical symptoms of Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
From as early as two years old, children who were later diagnosed with ADHD had significantly higher levels of parent-reported sleep problems, including bedtime resistance and night waking, than children without ADHD.