New Study Links Behavioral Problems with Childhood Sleep Disorders

Parents and doctors agree that sleep is vital for proper brain development in children; however, a new study links disrupted sleep with behavioral problems later in childhood. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, children who suffer from sleep-disordered breathing—snoring, apnea, and mouth-breathing—are more likely to have behavioral problems later in life. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, tracked the sleeping patterns of children from the ages of 6 months to 5 ½ years old. Parents completed questionnaires regarding the type and severity of sleep-disordered breathing they witnessed. At 4 and 7 years of age, these same parents filled out questionnaires that focused on strengths and difficulties concerning their child’s behavior. The commonly used form assesses the following aspects of behavior:

  • Inattention and hyperactivity,
  • Emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression,
  • Peer problems,
  • Conduct problems including aggression and rule breaking,
  • Social cooperation with sharing, helpfulness, etc.

After controlling for different variables, researchers found that children who suffered from sleep -disordered breathing were “40% to 100% more likely to develop neurobehavioral problems by age 7…” Furthermore, the study found that children who suffered from more severe sleep-disordered breathing at 6 or 18 months were “40% to 50% more likely…to experience behavioral problems at age 7 compared with children without breathing problems.”Hyperactivity seemed to be the area most affected by sleep-disorder breathing; however, significant increases were evident in the other behavioral areas.[1]

The researchers believe this correlation is due in part to the effects sleep-disordered breathing have on a child’s developing brain. Research shows that the first three years of a child’s life are the most important for brain function. During this time span, a toddler’s brain is more active and open to learning than at any other stage of life. This openness, however, also increases the vulnerability to developmental problems.  According to the researchers, sleep-disorder breathing can decrease the oxygen levels in an infant’s brain, thus increasing carbon dioxide in the prefrontal cortex—the area responsible for managing impulse control. Additionally, sleep-disordered breathing may disrupt the restorative processes of sleep and the balance of cellular systems, which may result in a child’s inability to effectively suppress certain behaviors and regulate their emotions and arousals.

While daunting, this study also provides hope. Armed with a new understanding, parents can immediately identify sleep-disorder breathing in their children and seek appropriate help. FusionSleep, Atlanta’s only comprehensive sleep medicine program, specializes in treating all types of sleep disorders for patients of all ages. Nationally accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, FusionSleep’s Pediatric Sleep Medicine experts can ensure your children get the sleep their developing brains need.  Call us today to book an appointment.

[1] Bonuck, K., Freeman, K., Chervin, R. D., & Xu, L. (2012). Sleep-disordered breathing in a population-based cohort: Behavioral outcomes at 4 and 7 years. Pediatrics129(4), doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1402