Toddlers' Sleep Problems Linked to Long-Term Behavior Problems

Toddlers need plenty of sleep.
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Warnings about the dangers of inadequate sleep in children aren’t new.  Previous studies have linked poor sleep habits to everything from obesity to poor academic performance. But new research shows that sleep problems in toddlers may lead to behavior problems years down the road.

What the Research Shows

A 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows a link between sleep issues at age 2 and behavior and emotional problems at age 5.

While this isn’t the first study to link inadequate sleep to behavior problems, it is the first one that examined how a lack of sleep as a toddler can lead to increased problems during the preschool years.

The study, which was supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Health, is based on information gathered from 32,662 pairs of mothers and children in Norway. Mothers completed questionnaires when they were 17 weeks pregnant, when the child was 18 months old, and again when the child was 5 years old.

They rated 99 child behaviors and reported how much sleep their child got in a 24 hour period. They also documented how often their child woke up during the night.

When children were 18 months of age, about 60% of them slept between 13 and 14 hours per night. About 2% slept for less than 10 hours per night and 3% woke up 3 or more times per night.

The toddlers who slept less than 13 hours per night had more emotional and behavior problems than their peers.

Additionally, those same kids had more problems at age 5. They were most at risk for anxiety, depression and emotional reactivity. They also had increased incidence of attention problems and aggression.

Even when the researchers accounted for the other factors, like the mother’s age and education level, and the child’s birth weight and sex, the results still showed that toddlers with fewer hours of sleep were at a higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems later on.

The study doesn’t prove that a lack of sleep causes problems, but it does show there’s a clear a link between sleep and emotional and behavioral control.

The Role Sleep Plays in Development

Sleep plays a critical role in a child’s development. Although growth hormones are released throughout the day, the most intense period of release is shortly after a toddler falls into a deep sleep.

Growth hormones stimulate biological events in the blood, muscles, organs and bones. When children don’t get enough sleep, their bodies can be affected in a variety of ways. They may struggle to regulate their appetite and may have difficulty with their motor skills. They may also struggle with concentration and may have increased difficulty regulating their emotions.

Why Toddlers Have Sleep Problems

There are many factors that can lead to sleep problems in toddlers. Toddlers want to be independent and their desire to do things on their own terms often leads to bedtime behavior problems.

Their budding motor skills means they can jump out of a crib or get up out of a toddler bed.

Rather than take a nap, many of them take an opportunity to play with toys or move about as much as they can.

Sometimes toddlers struggle with separation anxiety. Being in a dark room all by themselves can cause them to become too fearful to sleep. Their growing imaginations can also cause them to envision anything from monsters under the bed to scary things in the closet.

Make Sleep a Priority

It’s clear that skipping naps or skimping on nighttime sleep can cause problems for toddlers. And those problems go beyond having an overtired child for a day – too little sleep could impact your child’s development. Take steps to ensure your toddler is getting the recommended 13 to 14 hours of sleep each day.

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