What Poor Sleep Could Mean for Kids

Written by A. Noelle

Image: David Castillo Dominici

Although the reported study does not provide evidence of a direct cause-and-effect link, recent research suggests that childhood sleep issues may boost the risk for developmental disabilities by the age of 8 (HealthDay). Children who suffered from sleep apnea and snoring as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, were more likely to require special education for certain speech and behavioral problems only a few years later.

Note that although an association between poor sleep and subsequent special education needs was observed, the study “did not prove cause and effect.” There are other potential contributing factors to consider as well as the possibility of a statistical fluke in the study – the results were limited since all the children involved in the research were from England, 98% of whom were white.

Despite these circumstances, study author Karen Bonuck, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Family and Social Medicine, considers the findings worrisome: “We’ve got a generation of children potentially at risk from long-term developmental deficits that might occur from these sleep problems. Parents need to be vigilant.”

Authors of the study took a look at previous research, involving thousands of children whose parents answered surveys regarding their children’s sleeping habits and problems (e.g., snoring, nightmares, and waking in the middle of the night) at ages ranging from 6 months to 5 years and up – researchers then tracked the number of children with apparent special education needs by age 8. Children with the worst sleeping problems made up about 8% (934 of 11,049 children) and had the highest risk of requiring special education services by 8 years, even after adjusting statistics to factor out the high or low numbers of children with certain IQs. Another analysis showed 1,825 out of a total 13,024 children with special education needs; more than 71% had suffered from sleeping problems when they were younger.

Professor of education at Auburn University Joseph Buckhalt turned to past research, which has revealed that sleep deprivation does disrupt the brain’s ability to make memories, but acknowledged that there were other factors to take into account, such as genetics – which could actually be responsible for both sleep problems and disabilities. Buckhalt advised parents to monitor their children’s sleeping habits:

Sleep is not just ‘rest’ where the body needs to restore energy. The brain is active 24/7, and we now know that not only important aspects of learning and memory happen during sleep, but emotion regulation is also dependent on sleep.



  1. I loved this piece. I firmly believe that not just sleep but the quality of sleep has a direct relationship to how well children thrive. I have spent my life dedicated to children, mine and others. I always found it funny when parents told me that their small children do not take naps. There is not a child on the earth that I cannot get to take a daily nap, mostly because they need their rest! Once a child I cared for over a weekend, was one of those whose mother claimed he did not take naps. When she called home that weekend asking how her four year old was doing, I said, “He is fine; he is sleeping.” She didn’t believe me. He slept three hours and went to bed at his normal bedtime.

    For me, sleep is vital to a child’s mental and physical growth as well as their emotional stability.

    Admittedly, I do have my secrets. Nap at the same time every day. Comfortable sleeping wear, cotton, cotton bed linens, cotton blankets, and music — always the same choice; mine is Seal’s! Another key factor is reading. I read three, short stories — simple ones. The first two are of their choice, the third and last, the same one. Once my 2-year-old was in the car, and we were late getting home, so I began to repeat “Heads and shoulders, knees and toes!” He knew, and began to protest, “No, no!” He wasn’t ready to go off to Castle Land. Within a minute, he was sound asleep. The child, Mickey, is the little boy who goes to sleep (i.e., matched to him).

    Repetition, sleep, and simple diets, well described in “3 Tips for Handling Picky Eaters,” not heavy with bread and/or sugar. I find sugar is an issue when they are going through a growing spurt, explaining why tests don’t support the hyperactivity generated by sugar.

  2. Pingback: What Poor Sleep Could Mean for Preschoolers | Noelle's Portfolio

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