Kids' Poor Sleep Tied to Later Cognitive, Behavioral Issues

A new study find that children between the ages of three and seven who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships in mid-childhood.

Published in the journal Academic Pediatrics, the study found significant differences in the responses of parents and teachers to surveys regarding executive function — which includes attention, working memory, reasoning, and problem solving — and behavioral problems in seven year-old children depending on how much sleep they regularly received at younger ages.

“We found that children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age seven,” said Elsie Taveras, M.D., M.P.H., chief of general pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, who led the study.

“The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship.”

As in previous studies from these researchers examining the role of sleep in several areas of child health, the new study analyzed data from Project Viva, a long-term investigation of the health impacts of several factors during pregnancy and after birth.

Information used in this study was gathered from mothers at in-person interviews when their children were around six months, three years, and seven years old, and from questionnaires completed when the children were one, two, four, five and six.

Additionally, mothers and teachers were sent surveys designed to evaluate each child’s executive function and behavioral issues, including emotional symptoms and problems with conduct or peer relationships, when the children were around seven.

Among the 1,046 children enrolled in Project Viva, the research team determined which children were not receiving the recommended amount of sleep at specific ages, such as 12 hours or longer at ages six months to two years, 11 hours or longer at ages three to four years, and 10 hours or longer at five to seven years.

Children living in homes with lower household incomes and whose mothers had lower education levels were more likely to sleep less than nine hours at ages five to seven, the study discovered.

Other factors associated with insufficient sleep included more television viewing, a higher body mass index, and being African American, according to the study’s findings.

The reports from both mothers and teachers regarding the neurobehavioral function of the children found similar associations between poor functioning and not receiving sufficient sleep, with teachers reporting even greater problems.

Although no association was observed between insufficient sleep during infancy — ages six months to two years — and reduced neurobehavioral functioning in mid-childhood, Taveras noted that sleep levels during infancy often predict levels at later ages, supporting the importance of promoting a good quantity and quality of sleep from the youngest ages.

“Our previous studies have examined the role of insufficient sleep on chronic health problems, including obesity, in both mothers and children,” Taveras said.

“The results of this new study indicate that one way in which poor sleep may lead to these chronic disease outcomes is by its effects on inhibition, impulsivity and other behaviors that may lead to excess consumption of high-calorie foods. It will be important to study the longer-term effects of poor sleep on health and development as children enter adolescence, which is already underway through Project Viva.”

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital