Children who are able to soothe themselves back to sleep from an early age tend to have an easier time adjusting to school compared to children with sleep problems, according to a new study at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia.
The findings show that one in three children have continuous sleeping problems from birth to five years and are at greater risk of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and emotional and behavioral issues at school.
The study involved 2,880 children from the landmark study “Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children” (LSAC). The researchers analyzed the sleep behavior of children born in 2004 until they reached six-to-seven years.
Mothers were asked to report their children’s sleep problems and any emotional and/or attention problems from birth to five years. Teachers also reported on children’s social and emotional adjustment at school.
“We now know 70 percent of children are regulating their own sleep by five years but for the remaining third it may be detrimental to them developmentally over time,” said Dr. Kate Williams from QUT’s Faculty of Education, School of Early Childhood. “The overwhelming finding is it’s vital to get children’s sleep behaviors right by the time they turn five.”
Williams said the study is one of the first to use a large sample size and to examine the long-term impact of children’s sleep on early school behavior.
The researchers were surprised by the high number of young children identified as having escalating behavioral sleep problems, which in turn were associated with teacher-reported hyperactivity, poorer classroom self-regulation, and emotional outbursts.
“If these sleep issues aren’t resolved by the time children are five years old then they are at risk of poorer adjustment to school,” she said.
With more than 85 percent of families using childcare or preschool services, Williams said there was an opportunity to create awareness for better sleep practices before children start school.
“Parents can withdraw some habits, like lying with children over and over, letting them into their bed, it’s really important to give children a sense of skill so they can do these things themselves,” she said.
“Sleep problems can be sorted out long before a child reaches school age provided parents, carers and child care works are aware and supported,” she said. “Prevention is the key.”
The study, titled “Early childhood profiles of sleep problems and self-regulation predict later school adjustment” is published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.