Poor infant sleep may lead to problematic toddler behaviour: New study

Parents, take note! Infants who often wake up at night frequently and experience broken sleep patterns are more likely to exhibit behaviour and attention problems as toddlers, a new study has found.

The study found that one-year-olds who experienced fragmented sleep were more likely to have difficulties concentrating and to exhibit behavioural problems at three and four years of age. “Many parents feel that, after a night without enough sleep, their infants are not at their ‘best’,” said Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences in Israel. “But the real concern is whether infant sleep problems – ie fragmented sleep, frequent night wakings – indicate any future developmental problems,” said Sadeh.

“The fact that poor infant sleep predicts later attention and behaviour irregularities has never been demonstrated before using objective measures,” he said.

The team assessed the sleep patterns of infants. The initial study included 87 one-year-olds and their parents. They revisited the lab when the infants were three to four years old. “Night-wakings of self-soothing infants go unnoticed by their parents. Therefore, objective infant sleep measures are required when assessing the role of sleep consolidation or sleep fragmentation and its potential impact on the developing child,” the researchers said.

To accomplish this, the researchers used wristwatch-like devices to objectively determine sleep patterns at the age of one, and in the follow-up visits they used a computerised attention test to assess attentional executive control. They also referred to parental reports to determine signs of behavioural problems. The results showed significant predictive and concomitant correlations between infant sleep and toddler attention regulation and behaviour problems.

The study points to significant ties between sleep quality markers (sleep percentage and number of night wakings) at one year of age and attention and behaviour regulation markers two to three years later. “We don’t know what the underlying causes are for the lower sleep quality and later behaviour regulation problems in these children,” said Sadeh. “There may be genetic or environmental causes adversely affecting both the children’s sleep and their development in other domains,” he said.

“Early interventions for infant sleep problems, very effective in improving sleep quality, could potentially improve later attention and behaviour regulation,” he said.

The study was published in the journal Developmental Neuropsychology.