Originally published on Chelsea’s Blog.
Although the reported study does not provide evidence of a direct cause-and-effect link, recent research suggests that childhood sleep issues may boost the risk for developmental disabilities by the age of 8 (HealthDay). Children who suffered from sleep apnea and snoring as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, were more likely to require special education for certain speech and behavioral problems only a few years later.
Note that although an association between poor sleep and subsequent special education needs was observed, the study “did not prove cause and effect.” There are other potential contributing factors to consider as well as the possibility of a statistical fluke in the study – the results were limited since all the children involved in the research were from England, 98% of whom were white.
Despite these circumstances, study author Karen Bonuck, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Family and Social Medicine, considers the findings worrisome: “We’ve got a generation of children potentially at risk from long-term developmental deficits that might occur from these sleep problems. Parents need to be vigilant.”
Authors of the study took a look at previous research, involving thousands of children whose parents answered surveys regarding their children’s sleeping habits and problems (e.g., snoring, nightmares, and waking in the middle of the night) at ages ranging from 6 months to 5 years and up – researchers then tracked the number of children with apparent special education needs by age 8. Children with the worst sleeping problems made up about 8% (934 of 11,049 children) and had the highest risk of requiring special education services by 8 years, even after adjusting statistics to factor out the high or low numbers of children with certain IQs. Another analysis showed 1,825 out of a total 13,024 children with special education needs; more than 71% had suffered from sleeping problems when they were younger.
Professor of education at Auburn University Joseph Buckhalt turned to past research, which has revealed that sleep deprivation does disrupt the brain’s ability to make memories, but acknowledged that there were other factors to take into account, such as genetics – which could actually be responsible for both sleep problems and disabilities. Buckhalt advised parents to monitor their children’s sleeping habits:
Sleep is not just ‘rest’ where the body needs to restore energy. The brain is active 24/7, and we now know that not only important aspects of learning and memory happen during sleep, but emotion regulation is also dependent on sleep.