Early Sleep Problems Signal Later Emotional Troubles
A milestone in child development, at least for many parents, is when the kid finally sleeps through the night. But a recent study suggests that it’s a good idea for parents to monitor how the wee ones are sleeping as well as how long.
Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study shows that children who have problems breathing while they sleep are more likely to experience behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and aggressiveness when they get older. They’re also more likely to have emotional issues such as difficult peer relationships.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University followed the sleeping patterns of more than 11,000 children for six years. They found that kids who snored, breathed heavily through their mouths and experienced apnea—long pauses between breaths during sleep—were at risk.
Collectively known as sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), the problem peaks when children are between 2 and 6 years old, but can occur when they are younger. Approximately 1 in 10 children snores regularly and 2 to 4 in 100 have sleep apnea, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Health and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). Common causes of SDB are enlarged tonsils or adenoids, but be wary of the “quick-fix” of tonsillectomy—as we have reported, that surgical procedure is often unnecessary, and to conclude that tonsils contribute to sleep disorders requires careful diagnosis.
Quite simply, the study’s authors said, “Parents and pediatricians alike should be paying closer attention to sleep-disordered breathing in young children, perhaps as early as the first year of life.”
Although earlier studies indicated sleep problems could signal later difficulties, they involved only small numbers of patients, short follow-up of a single symptom or limited control of individual traits such as low birth weight that could be responsible for some symptoms.
In the new, more substantial study, children whose symptoms peaked between the ages of six and 18 months were much more likely to experience behavioral problems when they were 7 compared with children who breathe normally during sleep. Children whose SDB symptoms persisted throughout the evaluation period, and were most severe at 30 months, expressed the most severe behavioral problems.
Researchers theorize that SDB might be responsible for behavioral problems because of its effect on the brain. Decreased oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide interrupts the restorative process of sleep and disrupts various chemical systems. Such malfunctions can impair one’s ability to pay attention, plan ahead and organize. They also impede one’s ability to regulate emotions.
To learn more about SDB and treatment options, consult the AAO-HNS fact sheet.
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