Sleep Problems in Young Children Linked to Lower QOL in Later Years

Jeff Craven

August 12, 2020

Sleep problems in children from birth to middle childhood may lead to decreased emotional well-being and quality of life by the time a child is 10-11 years old, a recent longitudinal study has found.

The effects of these impairments increased over time and included internalizing and externalizing concerns, self-control, and quality of life, but did not appear to significantly affect cognitive or academic skills, according to Ariel A. Williamson, PhD, DBSM, of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and colleagues. While children with consistent sleep problems experienced the worse outcomes, mild sleep problems also were associated with impairment, the researchers said.

"The range of impairments across academic and psychosocial domains in middle childhood indicate that it is important to screen for sleep problems consistently over the course of a child's development, especially to target children who experience persistent sleep problems over time," said Dr. Williamson in a press release.

The researchers examined data from 5,107 children in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children – Birth Cohort, where sleep problems and well-being outcomes were measured at multiple time points. Behaviors such as difficulty getting off to sleep at night, not happy to sleep alone, and waking during the night were defined as sleep problems. The investigators found five main domains of sleep issues: children who had persistent sleep problems through middle childhood (7.7%), limited sleep problems as an infant or during preschool (9.0%), mild sleep problems over time (14.4%), increased sleep problems during middle childhood (17.0%), and a group that did not experience sleep problems (51.9%).

Caregivers reported sleep issues in the cohort, while well-being outcomes were reported by caregivers and teachers, and tasks were completed by the children at 10-11 years of age. Dr. Williamson and colleagues examined well-being in terms of emotional and behavioral functioning, health-related quality of life, cognitive skills, and academic achievement.

Different Reports From Teacher and Caregivers

Teacher and caregivers reported different effects in children with persistent sleep problems. Teachers reported moderate internalizing (effect size, –0.65; 95% confidence interval [CI],–0.87 to –0.43; P < .001) and externalizing concerns (ES, –0.40; 95% CI, –0.58 to –0.21; P less than .001), compared with children who did not have sleep problems, whereas caregivers reported large internalizing (ES, –0.75; 95% CI, –0.92 to –0.57; P less than .001) and externalizing concerns (ES, –0.70; 95% CI, –0.86 to –0.53; P < .001). Children with persistent sleep problems had moderate impairment of self-control as reported by caregivers, compared with children with no sleep problems (ES, –0.37; 95% CI, –0.52 to –0.21; P < .001). Psychosocial and health-related quality of life reported by caregivers were worse in children with persistent sleep problems, compared with children who did not have sleep problems (ES range, –0.78 to –0.90; 95% CI, –1.06 to –0.56; P < .001).

For children who exhibited increased sleep problems in middle childhood, caregivers (ES for both, –0.61; 95% CI, –0.76 to –0.46; P < .001) and teachers (ES range, –0.29 to –0.39; 95% CI, –0.53 to –0.15; P < .001) reported greater rates of internalizing and externalizing symptoms, compared with children who had no sleep issues.

Small impairments in internalizing internal or externalizing symptoms were seen in children who had limited sleep problems as an infant or in preschool (ES, –0.12; 95% CI, –0.23 to –0.01; P < .05) as reported by teachers, and in children with mild sleep problems over time (ES, –0.19; 95% CI, –0.30 to –0.08; P < .001) as reported by caregivers. There were no significant impairments in self-control for children in either the infant or preschool impairment group or in the group of children with mild sleep problems.

Across all groups, sleep problems did not significantly impair nonverbal reasoning, and most areas of academic competencies were not significantly impaired among groups except in language and literacy, and mathematical thinking for children with persistent sleep problems (ES, –0.41 for both; 95% CI, –0.60 to –0.23; P < .001). Children with increased sleep problems during middle childhood "had few academic and cognitive impairments," and academic impairments among children with mild sleep problems were not significant.

Expert Opinion

Brandon M. Seay MD, FAAP, pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, said in an interview that the study is one of the first to offer longitudinal data for impairment in children with sleep problems. He said the paper emphasizes the need for recognizing when children are demonstrating sleep problems. "It just shows that problems that aren't dealt with earlier on definitely have bigger impacts on sleep as you go through life," he said.

Dr. Brandon M. Seay

Although primary care physicians and pediatricians should be already asking questions about sleep through anticipatory guidance, he said, intervening earlier for sleep problems is important. He noted children who exhibit sleep problems over time are more likely to have issues in handling their emotions and eventually may develop cognitive issues. "[W]e know that if these problems continue to go through, this paper's showing us that they have worse effects down the road," he said.

Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis

These problems may also be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Seay noted that with many parents working from home, sleep schedules can be affected and parents may also be co-sleeping with their children, which can cause chronic insomnia and early waking. To help address sleep issues, especially ones that may have arisen during COVID-19, parents should make sure their children show up for primary care visits to report problems, and clinicians should make a sleep routine a focus of conversations around sleep problems.

Prior to the pandemic, "we already were hitting upon that in sleep clinic, making sure [they] get the same schedule every day," said Dr. Seay. For parents with children who have "issues with insomnia or waking up during the night, having that routine in place does help to mitigate that a little bit, so if that routine is not there, it can actually exacerbate the issues."

This study was funded by the Australian federal government. The authors report no relevant conflicts of interest. Dr. Seay reports no relevant conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Williamson AA et al. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2020 Jul 26. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13303.

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