Study: Poor sleep in early childhood leads to attention issues, social & emotional disabilities

BOSTON — Recent research has shown the importance and great benefits of a good night’s rest: in fact a study last month compares quality shut-eye to winning the lottery. Meanwhile, the negative health impacts of sleepless nights are also well documented — for adults. Now a new study shows how poor sleep in early childhood can significantly impede a youngster’s future.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that children who don’t get enough sleep between the ages of three and seven can experience challenges in attention, emotional control, and peer relationships by the time they are in mid-childhood.

The research was led by Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, chief of General Pediatrics at MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

Sleeping child
A new study finds lack of sleep in early childhood leads to challenges in attention, emotional control, and peer relationships for kids.

“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 7,” says Taveras in a hospital news release. “The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship.”

The study relied on data from a longterm child health investigation called “Project Viva.” The study looked at different factors having to do with pregnancy and shortly after birth, and how they affected 1,046 kids from infancy up to 7 years old. Mothers were interviewed and surveyed at various points and also provided with instruments to measure a child’s executive and behavioral growth, “including emotional symptoms and problems with conduct or peer relationships, when children were around 7,” according to the release.

The researchers sought out the children in the study who were not sleeping enough overnight. Factors like having a low household income, less educated mothers, and an increase in TV watching tended to be correlated with not getting enough sleep. Children who had a higher body mass index or were African American were also found to have fewer hours of rest.

They found that sleeping habits in infancy predict sleeping habits at later ages, and that kids who didn’t rest enough were more likely to be reported for having poor neurobehavioral function.

“Our previous studies have examined the role of insufficient sleep on chronic health problems – including obesity – in both mothers and children. 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,” says Taveras, who adds another study on poor sleep and adolescence is in progress under Project Viva.

According to Taveras and her team, children who are ages 6 months to 2 years old should sleep for at least 12 hours a night; children ages 3 to 4 should total at least 11 hours; those 5 to 7 years old should sleep for at least 10 hours a night.

The study was published in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

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