Bad Sleeping Habits in Early Childhood Can Impair Cognitive Behaviors Later in Life

sleepA prospective longitudinal American study has found that children between the ages of 3 to 7 who do not get enough sleep are likely to experience cognitive behavioral problems in mid-childhood.

The study, which was led by Dr. Elsie Tavaras, chief of General Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, showed that children who do not get enough recommended sleep will likely exhibit problems with emotional control, attention, and peer relationships by age 7.

“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. The associations between insufficient sleep and poorer functioning persisted even after adjusting for several factors that could influence the relationship,” said Tavares. 

Tavares and her research team followed over 1000 children from 6 months to 7 years old. Mothers of the children were interviewed in person when their children were 6 months, 3 years, and 7 years old. In addition, the mothers and teachers of the children completed self-report questionnaires when the children were 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 years old.

The assessment methods used focused on evaluating each child’s executive function — the ‘CEO’ of the brain responsible for getting things done. Specifically, executive function controls mental processes and self-regulation skills such as planning, focusing, keeping attention, remembering things, and juggling multiple tasks.

The findings, published online in Academic Pediatrics, showed significant differences in the responses of mothers and teachers regarding the executive functioning of children who received adequate sleep versus those who did not.

The researchers found a strong relationship between poor functioning and insufficient sleep. In other words, children who slept less had weaker neurobehavioral function. This relationship was found to be more likely in children of lower-income households, in children who viewed television more, and in children who had a higher body mass index.

Tavares concludes,

“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. It will be important to study the longer-term effects of poor sleep on health and development as children enter adolescence, which is already underway through Project Viva.”

Current paediatric guidelines suggest that children between the ages of 6 months to 2 years should receive 12 hours or more of sleep daily, children between the ages of 3 to 4 should be sleeping for 11 or more hours daily, and children 5 to 7 years old should be asleep for 10 or more hours daily.




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