Mild sleep problems in children linked to poorer language and behaviour, study shows

Research news

Monday 10 July 2017

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Mild sleep problems in children are linked to poorer language skills and behaviour, a new study has found.

Researchers from Coventry University looked at how breathing problems during sleep – ranging from snoring to more severe medical conditions such as sleep apnoea - affected pre-schoolers’ cognitive development and behaviour.

Their study involved 44 children aged between two and four – including 22 with Down’s syndrome – who had their sleep monitored using a body-worn device.

The youngsters also took part in a series of tests that recorded areas of brain function, such as motor and language skills, and their parents answered questionnaires on their behavioural strengths and difficulties and vocabulary.

Researchers found that typically developing youngsters who slept for a shorter time had more emotional symptoms, such as fears and unhappiness, compared with children who slept for longer.

Children who had more breathing problems during sleep scored worse on language and behavioural tests.  They had more difficulty expressing themselves, were less likely to exhibit pro-social behaviour (such as being kind or helping people) and had more behavioural problems.

None of the children had serious breathing problems, so researchers say that their study shows that even mild sleep problems can affect cognitive function.

However, for the children with Down’s syndrome they found sleep problems were actually linked with better language skills and an improved use of actions and gestures. 

The children with Down’s syndrome typically slept longer, which may have protected them from the harmful effects of breathing problems during sleep, but the academics say the results were still “unexpected” and require further research.

They say all their results, published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, show the importance of screening young children for sleep problems, so any issues can be treated and don’t go on to affect their future development and readiness for school.

Lead researcher Dr Anna Joyce, from the university’s Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement, said: 

“Since mild sleep problems often go unnoticed and untreated, it’s important that we screen and treat children’s sleep from an early age to ensure they have the best cognitive outcomes.

“We already knew from previous research that childhood sleep disorders can lead to anxiety disorders in adulthood, but our study shows a link from a very early age which could affect children’s futures.

“Parents should be aware of the importance of sleep and ensure that their children are getting enough good quality sleep. That means between 10 and 13 hours for pre-schoolers, and nine to 11 hours for primary school children.”

“I’ve been fascinated by sleep since I was a child, probably encouraged by stories from my parents about my sleepwalking antics. We spend so much time doing it, we know that we suffer if we don’t get enough of it, yet we know so little about it. The more I learn about sleep, the more I want to discover.”

For further press information, please contact Alison Martin, press officer, Coventry University, on 02477659752 or email alison.martin@coventry.ac.uk.