University of Michigan Medical School researchers studied elementary school students from a Michigan public school who presented a history of conduct problems or bullying.
The investigators discovered there was a twofold higher risk for symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing, particularly daytime sleepiness among these students.
“What this study does is raise the possibility that poor sleep, from whatever cause, can indeed play into bullying or other aggressive behaviors — a major problem that many schools are trying to address,” said co-author Louise O’Brien, Ph.D.
“Our schools do push the importance of healthy eating and exercise, but this study highlights that good sleep is just as essential to a healthy lifestyle.”
Sleep-disordered breathing is an umbrella term for a spectrum of breathing problems during sleep, which range from habitual snoring to obstructive sleep apnea, where the airway collapses at night.
However, sleepiness can result from many factors. The sleepiness experienced by the children in the study could be caused by factors including a chaotic home environment, fragmented sleep or not enough sleep because of too much electronic stimulus from television, cell phones or computers in the bedroom, as well as disordered breathing.
O’Brien said the study showed that sleepiness seemed to be the biggest driver of the behavior problems, not the snoring, which is often a more obvious symptom associated with sleep-disordered breathing.
O’Brien says that a longitudinal study is needed. Although there are other reasons for these behaviors, if sleepiness does contribute to aggressive behavior as this study suggests, a significant proportion of bullying in children might be eliminated by efforts to reduce children’s daytime sleepiness.
“We know that the prefrontal cortex area of the brain is sensitive to sleep deprivation, and this area is also related to emotional control, decision making and social behavior,” said O’Brien.
“So impairment in the prefrontal cortex may lead to aggression or disruptive behavior, delinquency or even substance abuse. But the good news is that some of these behaviors can be improved. Sleep-disordered breathing can be treated, and schools or parents can encourage kids to get more sleep.”
O’Brien recommends parents remove electronic devices from bedrooms, make getting enough sleep a priority and encourage children to sleep for the recommended amount of time without interruption. It is recommended that children in preschool sleep between 11-13 hours a night, and school-aged children between 10-11 hours of sleep a night.
“Given the high prevalence of aggressive, bullying and disruptive behaviors in schools and the long-lasting consequences for both perpetrators and victims, more study on this issue is needed,” she said.
The study is found in the journal Sleep Medicine.