Child's Insomnia Linked to Teen Alcohol Abuse

Parents Should Help Children Overcome Sleep Problems

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on April 14, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

April 14, 2004 -- Young children with sleep problems, such as insomnia, may be prone to turn to alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes in their early teen years, a new study shows.

"We found that when a mother reported her child as having sleep problems -- at ages 3 to 5 - that child was twice as likely to have drug and alcohol abuse problems," researcher Maria Wong, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, tells WebMD. Her study appears in the current issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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Bad parenting may be driving the child's sleep problems, points out Louis B. Antoine, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Miami School of Medicine. He agreed to comment on Wong's findings.

"After all, what is the definition of sleep problems in a toddler?" asks Antoine. "Let's say a mother has sleep problems of her own. Let's say she's not very sophisticated about children, doesn't understand child development very well, has problems herself that make her impatient. Also, is the child being fed properly? Is there an anxiety disorder, nightmares, fear of the dark? Is the child hyperactive, so wired that he's not able to settle down?"

Boys Sleeping Badly

For their study, Wong and her colleagues recruited 257 boys from families, many of which (60%) were considered high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, because the father was an alcoholic. Mothers rated their sons' early childhood (aged 3 to 5) sleep problems, problems such as overtiredness and having trouble sleeping. Attention problems anxiety or depression symptoms, and signs of aggressive behavior were also reported by mothers.

The boys themselves reported on their drinking, smoking, and drug use habits from age 12 to 14.

Wong found that those with early childhood sleep problems were:

  • Twice as likely to start using alcohol by 12 to 14.
  • Twice as likely to be regular smokers.
  • Twice as likely to use illicit drugs.
  • Three times more likely to use marijuana.

The findings held true -- even after anxiety, depression, aggression, and attention problems were taken into account. It was also true, whether parents were alcoholics or not.

"Not all kids with early childhood sleep problems began drinking and abusing drugs at an early age," Wong tells WebMD. "However, the potential is there -- something parents should be aware of." She intends to study girls' sleep patterns next.

There may be a genetic vulnerability driving this pattern. It may create a vulnerability leading to poor choice of friends and more exposure to drugs, which needs to be analyzed, says Wong. Also, she asks, could drinking alcohol to aid sleep be what's happening?

Wong notes one limitation of her study: using only mothers' ratings of their sons' sleep patterns.

The mothers' ratings could reflect problems in the mother-son relationship, she says.

Help Kids Get Good Night's Sleep

"Parents should pay attention to the child's sleep problems, not dismiss any complaints about inadequate sleep," Wong tells WebMD.


  • Decrease sugar in the child's diet.
  • Don't allow children to watch television or video tapes that are too stimulating, especially before bedtime.
  • Set a regular sleep schedule.

The child's pediatrician or family doctor can also help solve children's sleep problems, which could offset any risk of alcohol abuse or drug problems later, Wong tells WebMD.

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SOURCES: Maria Wong, MD, professor of psychiatry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Louis B. Antoine, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, University of Miami School of Medicine. Wong, M. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, April 2004: vol 28.

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