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Lack of sleep in early childhood linked to behavioural problems 

Children aged between three and seven who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have behavioural problems later on, a new study has shown.

A study of the sleep and behaviour patterns of 1,046 children in the US found a link between insufficient sleep and problems with attention, emotional control and relationships with their peers when they reach mid-childhood. 

The results of the study, which was led by a paediatrician from Massachusetts General Hospital, have been published in Academic Pediatrics.

Insufficient sleep

The study involved looking at data from a large investigation into the impact of various factors during pregnancy and childhood. Information was taken from interviews with mothers when their children were around six months, three years and seven years old; answers to questionnaires when the children were aged one, two, four, five and six; and survey responses from mothers and teachers about behavioural issues when the children were seven.

The recommended amount of sleep was set at 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 ages five to seven years.

The researchers found an association between poor functioning in terms of behaviour, and not getting enough sleep. Teachers reported more problems than mothers. There was no association found between behaviour later in life and not getting enough sleep between the ages of six months and two years.

Behavioural issues

Significant differences were found in the responses of mothers and teachers around ‘executive function’ (which includes attention, memory, reasoning and problem-solving) and behavioural issues (including emotional problems and problems with conduct or peer relationships) in seven-year-old children depending on how much sleep they regularly got when they were younger.

Other factors

The study also looked at the factors that impact lack of sleep in early childhood. Children living in lower income households were more likely to get less than nine hours sleep when aged between five and seven; as well as children whose mother had lower education levels.

Other factors associated with insufficient sleep according to the study included watching television, having a higher body mass index and being African American.

Paediatrician Elsie Taveras, who led the study, said: “The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship.”

Childhood study

The research is part of Project Viva, a large study of women and children by Harvard Medical School.

Elsie Taveras said: “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 otherbehaviours that may lead to excess consumption of high-calorie foods.”

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