Early sleep problems were highly predictive of future sleep problems in the newly published study.
They were more predictive than how parents responded to sleep issues, but certain parental responses also seemed to negatively affect future sleep patterns, the study shows.
At the beginning of the study, researchers from Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Montreal and the Universite de Montreal questioned 987 parents about the sleep behaviors of their then 5-month-old babies and their own rituals and behaviors directed toward getting the child to sleep.
Each year after this, until the children reached age 6, the parents were again asked about their children's sleep habits and their responses.
Early Sleep Problems Predictive
The researchers reported that the parents of children with sleep problems during infancy were more likely than other parents to adopt what they called "maladaptive" coping behaviors by the time their children had reached the ages of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years.
These behaviors included giving their child food or a drink upon awakening and putting the child in their own bed when he or she woke during the night.
Some of these behaviors, in turn, were found to predict future sleep problems, including bad dreams and total sleep time, but this effect did not remain statistically significant when the researchers controlled for early sleep problems.
The findings are reported in the April issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
"Our findings are consistent with the notion that the child's sleep is differentially vulnerable to parental behaviors at different developmental periods," the researchers wrote.
"Parental strategies that were effective for early sleep difficulties (e.g. giving food or drink) may later become inappropriate to the child's age and needs."
Sleep Specialist Weighs In
Pediatric sleep specialist Judith Owens, MD, of Providence, Rhode Island's Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., tells WebMD that it is no big surprise that infants with sleep problems are at greatest risk for sleep problems when they reach preschool age.
The director of Hasbro Children's Hospital's pediatric sleep disorders clinic, Owens says that it makes sense that certain parental behaviors in response to early sleep problems could negatively affect future sleep patterns.
"This is especially true of what we call reactive co-sleeping -- when the parent doesn't really want to co-sleep, but does it for a temporary fix," she says. "It is clear that this increases the risk of continuing the pattern," she tells WebMD.
Parents who don't choose to co-sleep should interfere as little as possible in the natural process of falling asleep, she says.
"Most parents want their babies and young children to sleep in separate rooms and to fall asleep on their own," she says. "If that is the goal, the more you insert yourself into that process the longer it is going to take. Children can learn to fall asleep on their own. But the more a parent does to facilitate this the more a child learns to depend on the parent."