Your Child's Sleep Habits and You

WebMD Live Events Transcript

The National Sleep Foundation's seventh annual Sleep in America poll is the first to examine children's sleep habits. How are your children sleeping? How is it affecting their health and your sleep? Sleep specialist Judith Owens, MD, MPH, joined us to discuss the poll results and what you can do to improve sleep for the whole family.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Owens. The National Sleep Foundation has released the results of its latest annual survey, this one focusing on children. What did they find out about the sleep habits of American children?

I think one of the most striking findings is that sleep problems appear to be more prevalent of this age group than we had previously expected. The poll shows about 70% of parents and caregivers report that their child has some type of sleep problem.

An additional finding is that it appears as though children in all age groups are not meeting the expert recommendations, in terms of sleep amounts, and even toddlers and preschoolers, according to the poll results, are not getting the amount of sleep we would recommend children in that age group obtain. It looks like the sleep deprivation that we know exists for adults and for adolescents is now trickling down into the younger age group, as well.

What age range did the study focus on?

The study looked at children up to 10 years old. These were mainly babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, as well as elementary school children.

What effect does this chronic sleep deprivation have on the developing brain, particularly in those toddlers and preschoolers?

We know that younger children, in particular, require an extraordinary amount of sleep. When you think about it, the average newborn sleeps for about 16 to 20 hours in a 24-hour day. We can conclude from that, that sleep is vitally important to brain development and although we don't know what the exact mechanisms are, we do think that sleep has very important impact on the development of memory.

We also know that sleep is very important for:

  • Attention
  • Creativity
  • Higher level organizational functioning

So there are all sorts of cognitive problems that could result from inadequate sleep in young children.

What is the leading cause of sleep problems?

I think a common medical condition that can cause significant sleep problems in children is obstructive sleep apnea. This is a condition characterized by loud snoring, breathing pauses, and there may be choking or gasping sounds during the night. Many of these children have enlarged tonsils and adenoids, which are the cause of blockage that occurs during breathing. Other risk factors emerging are being overweight and obese.

The consequences of the sleep fragmentation caused by obstructive sleep apnea may include:

  • Mood changes, such as irritability
  • Attentional problems
  • Behavioral problems
  • Academic impairment (as a consequence of the above)

It's an important condition to identify. This is something parents can bring to their child's physician. One of the things we know from the NSF poll is that physicians don't always ask parents about children's sleep habits, so it's very important that parents be aware of potential problems and volunteer that information.

I think another very important cause of sleep problems in children is not getting adequate sleep. The poll results really suggest that this is a pervasive problem, and that many parents are uncertain about how much sleep their children need, and don't always know the best way to ensure their child gets adequate sleep.

"Children need a psychological preparation to approach bedtime. Parents can assist in the process by having a regular series of activities that culminate in bedtime and lights out, so that it becomes a regular- routine-every-night kind of proposition."

If my child sleeps in another room how can I tell if he has sleep apnea?

Most of the time the type of snoring that is associated with sleep apnea is quite loud. I would suggest that if you, as a parent, have concerns that you make an opportunity to observe your child sleeping. Red flags might include:
  • Children who have allergies or asthma
  • Children who have a history of enlarged tonsils
  • Children who tend to be mouth breathers
  • A family history of obstructive sleep apnea or loud snoring

These are indicators that you might be more vigilant in observing your child's sleep and observing him for obstructive sleep apnea.

Do you have any data on possible sleep differences in children in daycare centers vs. home care?

There has been some data from looking at children of working mothers, and that particular study did not find any differences between children whose mothers were employed outside the home and those who were not, in terms of their sleep habits and sleep amounts.

I think that one of the issues with daycare that's very important is that of napping. It's critical that parents make sure that there's adequate time and facilities made available for napping in those children in this age range, namely up until about 5 years of age, who may still require a nap during the day.

How many hours of sleep for what ages are recommended, especially for babies? My son is going on 8 months.

Remember, this recommended amount is over a 24-hour period, so it includes daytime naps in the younger children.

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