Contrary to popular belief, infants and toddlers may not outgrow their sleeping problems. And the 10 percent who struggle with sleeping at night may be more likely to develop a sleep disorder as they get older, according to new research published in the journal Pediatrics.
The study, by researchers from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, as well as from the British Columbia Children's Hospital in Canada, involved 359 mothers and their children. The moms filled out questionnaires about sleep patterns and problems when their children were 6, 12, 24 and 36 months of age.
At each stage, the researchers said, 10 percent of the children had sleep problems. Night wakings and shorter sleep duration were common in infancy and early toddlerhood, while nightmares and restless sleep emerged between 24 and 36 months. And 21 percent of children with sleep problems in infancy had sleep problems at age 3, compared to 6 percent of those who did not have sleep problems as babies.
But parents tend to expect young children to have trouble sleeping and fuss at night, so they don't always report it to their pediatrician.
The researchers concluded that sleep problems "persist in a significant minority of children throughout early development." And just asking how well a child sleeps may not tell the pediatrician about sleep issues that need to be addressed.
"The data indicate that sleep problems in children are not an isolated phenomenon," Dr. Kelly Byars, an associate professor at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the study's author, told the New York Times. "If you have it early and it's not remedied, then it's likely to continue over time."
Frequent loud snoring or getting up in the middle of the night, nightmares, night terrors and trouble falling asleep are all potential indications of a problem that should be discussed with the child's doctor.
The National Sleep Foundation says more than two-thirds of children under 11 have a sleep-related issue that should be addressed.
Between 12 and 20 percent of the studied children frequently had loud snoring, which may be related to obstructive sleep apnea. Most kids with sleep apnea outgrow it, but it can leave a trail of academic disappointment, behavior problems and a failure to thrive that are not necessary because sleep apnea can be treated.
A 2009 international study published in Pediatrics noted that one-third of American children reportedly get inadequate sleep. The researchers tracked the sleep of 280 children who were born in Finland in 1998, using parental reports as well as sleep monitors. They said that inadequate sleep increases behavior problems and that efforts are needed to be sure children get enough sleep.
Byar told Reuters that many sleep disorders that impact adult life and health have their roots in childhood sleep challenges: trouble falling asleep, trouble getting up, nightmares, sleep walking, sleep apnea and narcolepsy.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a list of tips to help babies and toddlers get to sleep at night. For babies, the advice includes playing during daytime, putting baby to bed drowsy but awake so she learns to fall asleep on her own and delaying slightly a response to fussiness so she can try to fall back to sleep on her own.
Toddlers wind down best with a quiet routine before bedtime, consistency and being allowed to take a favorite blanket or toy to bed — as long as there are no choking hazards.
For all youngsters, one of the keys is "giving it time," the group says.
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