Healthy toddlers who were born prematurely are at greater risk of medical sleep problems than healthy full-term toddlers, but they tend to have an easier time falling asleep independently, according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
The findings show that young children (average age 21 months) who were born prematurely displayed more medical sleep problems such as nocturnal movement, restlessness during the night, and breathing problems, compared with those born at full term. However, a lower degree of behavioral sleep problems were found in preterm children.
The researchers suggest that the particular types of sleep problems faced by preterm babies may be a factor in some of the emotional and behavioral issues often seen in preterm children.
“Preterm children needed less support to fall asleep and fell asleep more often alone in their own bed compared to those born at full term,” said principal investigator Dr. Barbara Caravale, a researcher in the Department of Developmental and Social Psychology at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy.
“However, preterm children showed more frequent sleep difficulties, such as restlessness and breathing problems during the night.”
The study involved 51 children who had been born prematurely but who had normal cognitive, language, and motor development, and 57 healthy children born full term. The average age of the children was 21 months. The mothers completed a series of questionnaires to report sleep-related difficulties, sleep habits and child temperament.
The researchers found no differences between the two groups of children in bedtime, rise time or sleep duration. However, Caravale noted that the particular sleep issues reported by the parents of preterm babies may have resulted in sleep disruption, which could help explain significant differences in daytime attention and emotionality.
“We observed a link between sleep pattern and temperament in preterm children,” said Caravale. “Our study found that sleep problems were related to increased negative emotionality and decreased attention.”
According to the researchers, the new findings are consistent with earlier studies showing that children born preterm are at greater risk of attention and learning problems as well as emotional difficulties.
Because of this link, it is important that pediatricians screen for sleep problems more thoroughly in preterm children, especially with respect to sleep-related breathing disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and sleep-related movement disorders.