Nov. 14, 2006 -- Sleep problems are common among elementary-school-aged children, but they are often not recognized by parents, new research shows.
When 8-year-old twins and their parents were surveyed, almost half of the children reported experiencing difficulty falling asleep while fewer than one in five parents said their kids had sleep problems.
Based on their findings, researchers concluded that both genetic and environmental factors influence sleep problems among school-aged children.
Researchers Alice M. Gregory, PhD, of King's College London tells WebMD that the frequency of self-reported sleep problems among the children in the study should not escape the notice of pediatricians.
The study is published in the November/December issue of the journal Child Development.
"The finding that there is a high prevalence of sleep difficulties in a nonclinical sample suggests that it may be worthwhile to [ask about] sleep difficulties in children undergoing routine medical checkups," she notes.
300 Twin Pairs
The study included 300 twin pairs and their parents. About half of the twins were identical, meaning that they shared all the same genes.
Twin studies are performed to better understand how genes and environment influence health and development.
In the newly reported sleep study, twins and their parents were asked about specific sleep problems.
Among the main findings:
17% of the parents said their children usually had problems falling asleep (not falling asleep in 20 minutes); 45% of the children reported having problems.
19% of parents said their children showed signs of parasomnia, meaning that they talked in their sleep, walked in their sleep, or exhibited excessive movement during sleep.
Children who resisted going to bed were more likely to report having trouble falling asleep.
Childhood sleep researcher Marc Weissbluth, MD, tells WebMD he is not surprised that so many parents were unaware of their children's sleep problems.
Weissbluth is a practicing pediatrician and a pediatrics professor at Northwestern School of Medicine in Chicago. He wrote the book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.
"Parents know when their very young children aren't sleeping well, but children learn as they get older not to bother their parents at night," he says. "When this happens the problem shifts to teachers."
Weissbluth says sleep problems among elementary-school-aged children often manifest as behavioral and academic issues at school. But sleep deprivation is rarely recognized as the cause of classroom problems.
"Sleep is an underappreciated health habit," he says. "We all know that junk food is unhealthy for our children, but so is junk sleep. Healthy sleep is to the brain what healthy food is to the body."
Allowing children to stay up too late and overstimulating them immediately before bedtime are two common examples of unhealthy sleep habits, Weissbluth says.
He adds that the failure to address sleep issues could set children up for a lifetime of problems.
"Sleep is a learned behavior," he says. "You don't grow out of sleep problems. They just show up in different ways throughout life. An adolescent who never learned good sleep habits as a child is at risk for all the predictable poor outcomes like depression, obesity, and drug use. And teens who don't sleep well often become insomniac adults who rely on sleeping pills."