Why children need to be screened for sleep problems at all ages


Children should be screened for sleep problems at every age according to new research, which highlights the impact of sleep impairments on academic functioning and kids' general wellbeing.

The study of Australian children, published in The Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology found that sleep disturbances at any age were associated with diminished wellbeing when kids were 10 or 11 years old.

"Our study shows that although those with persistent sleep problems have the greatest impairments when it comes to broad child well-being, even those with mild sleep problems over time experience some psychosocial impairments," said co-author Ariel Williamson. 

"The range of impairments across academic and psychosocial domains in middle childhood indicate that it is important to screen for sleep problems consistently over the course of a child's development, especially to target children who experience persistent sleep problems over time."

Researchers used data from an Australian birth cohort consisting of more than 5,000 children. Over a period of 11 years, parents reported whether their children had sleep problems at different ages. A number of tests were also used to assess wellbeing, including measures of self-control, emotional and behavioural health (symptoms of anxiety and depression) and academic performance. Teachers also completed assessment reports of the children throughout the study. 

When they analysed the findings, the researchers discovered that compared to children with no sleep problems, kids with persistent issues had greatest impairments across most areas measured. In addition, children with sleep problems during primary school also experienced lower wellbeing and poorer quality of life. 

The authors note that in some children the relationship between sleep and wellbeing could be a two-way street, with psychosocial issues like anxiety leading to sleeping issues and vice versa, particularly in children who develop sleep problems later in childhood.

"The linkages between sleep problems and negative child outcomes across domains underscore the importance of early identification and targeted intervention to address sleep problems and promote child well‐being," the authors write.

Previous research has shown that about 50 per cent of children will experience a sleep problem and around four per cent will have a formal sleep disorder diagnosis.

Current Australian Government guidelines provide the following sleep recommendations for each age group: 

  • Zero - three months: 14 -17 hours (including naps)
  • Four -11 months 12- 16 hours (including naps)
  • Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep, including naps, with consistent sleep and wake-up times.
  • Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours of good quality sleep, which may include a nap, with consistent sleep and wake-up times. 
  • Five -13 years:  An uninterrupted nine to 11 hours of sleep per night 
  • 14-17 years: Eight to 10 hours per night