Sleeping Habits May Predict Behavioral Problems in Children


Adults have been known to get cranky and irritable from lack of sleep. And it turns out that children are no different. In fact, too little sleep for toddler and preschool age children can pose behavior problems for them later in life, according to a study.

“Children who aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep have more difficulties with attention, with emotional control, with reasoning, with problem-solving, and also have behavioral problems,” study lead author Dr. Elsie Taveras told Reuters.

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Both parents and teachers noticed a marked difference in 7-year-olds who were sleep deprived during their toddler to preschool years compared to their peers who got the age-appropriate amount of sleep during that same age range period.

Toddlers who don’t get enough sleep also experience poorer executive functioning later in life. Executive functioning is the brain’s ability to process incoming information. Taveras likens executive functioning and the body’s mental data to that of an air traffic controller monitoring airplanes. The brain has to take in lots of information and process it — just like incoming and outgoing airplanes.

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“If you think about it, these are the basic functions of a child’s life,” Taveras added.  “It really has implications on  their ability to perform at school and home, and in relationships with their peers.”

Using a study that followed them prior to birth, Taveras and researchers collected data from 1,046 children. The mothers of the children were questioned about their kids’ sleeping habits at 6 months, 3 years and 7 years old. They filled out health questionnaires yearly.

What ranked as sleep deficiency varied depending upon the ages of the children. For infants, getting less than 12 hours of sleep was considered an insufficient amount, but for 3- and 4-year-olds the number was less than 11 hours. For children ages five to seven, it was less than 10 hours.

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Both mothers and teachers were given questionnaires when the children turned seven to help track how the children’s executive functioning fared at that older age. The study showed that 3- and 4-year-olds who slept less than 10 hours a day had lower scores from their mothers and teachers compared to kids who slept for longer periods of time. The findings were nearly identical for 5- to 7-year-olds who slept less than nine hours a night; they also fared worse than their counterparts who got sufficient shut eye. Infancy to toddler sleep patterns were not a factor in this study. The age range between 6 months and 2 years of age was not examined or linked to how well or worse children behaved by age seven.

“(The study) adds to a building literature that is suggesting at least that having sleep problems early in life are predictive of behavioral and, in other populations, cognitive problems later,” Dr. Dean Beebe, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.