Poor Sleep in Infancy Leads to Problem Toddlers

Disrupted and poor quality sleep in the earliest months of a child’s life can be an indicator of depression, anxiety and behavioral problems among toddlers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, found a clear relationship between sleep problems in infancy such as frequent night wakings, short sleep duration or difficulty in falling asleep and particular emotional and behavioral problems at 24 months of age.

Although childhood sleep problems are extremely common and their association with daytime behavioral difficulties is well recognized, this study shows for the first time how sleep problems in infancy and very early childhood are associated with emotional and behavioral problems later in childhood.

The team believes these findings highlight the need to address infant sleep problems, to prevent the development or worsening of future emotional and behavioral problems in later stages of childhood.

Lead researcher Dr Isabel Morales-Muñoz explained: “Our results show that infants who sleep for shorter periods of time, take longer to fall asleep and wake up more frequently during the night are more likely to show emotional and behavioral problems in later stages of childhood. It’s likely that sleep quality in these early months and the development of self-regulation – the ability to control our behavior – are closely intertwined.”

The study suggests that infant sleep problems may be due to a variety of mechanisms, including genetic and environmental factors.

“Scientists think there are links in the central nervous system between sleep-wake behavior and our emotions, and so it’s possible these links have a biological basis,” says Dr Morales-Muñoz. “Environmental factors, such as sleeping practices in the family, parental reactions to crying and parental stress also play an important part in a child’s sleep and socio-emotional development.”

Dr Morales-Muñoz added: “Although more research needs to be done in this area, we think early interventions in infants experiencing these sleep problems could be really beneficial and help very young children develop their behavioral and emotional self-control.”