Lights Out: The Link between Sleep Disorders and Child Behavior Problems

Posted March 9, 2012 by

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Does your child snore, breathe through his mouth when he sleeps, or have sleep apnea — and were those same sleep patterns present when he was a baby or toddler? (Check, check and check, in my son’s case.) If so, experts say that could have a connection to his behavior.

A new study from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine at Yeshiva University found that sleep-disordered breathing in children and infants often precedes behavioral problems later on down the road — when those same kids are age four to seven.

The interesting part? It wasn’t just that poor sleep at night leads to bad behavior during the day. (A link every parent has experienced and seen firsthand.) What they discovered was that early sleep patterns were connected to behavior problems later.

Dr. Karen Bonuck, who headed the study, said in a New York Times interview that “Sleep has restorative processes the developing brain needs.”  And sleep that’s fragmented or disordered might not be giving kids’ brains the oxygen they need at night — and in fact, their brains might even be getting too much carbon dioxide.

She advises parents to listen to their child’s breathing in the first years of life and raise any concerns with their pediatrician.

Another reason for your child — of any age — to get enough sleep at night.

Recently, our 9-year-old asked for a later bedtime of 8:30. But here’s the thing about our kid (and I suspect, many of yours) — he is an absolute crab when he hasn’t had enough sleep. Worse than that, he’s more prone to tantrums, meltdowns and defiant behavior. So when he asked for the extra time before bed, I thought long and hard.

Luckily, I’d just read James Lehman’s article on bedtime battles and had a response ready. (Don’t you love it when that happens?!) In the article, and in his Total Transformation Program, James recommends asking your child four simple questions when they ask you for more freedom or something extra.

So that’s what I did.

“How will we know it’s working?” I said.

“Um, I won’t be too tired in the morning and I’ll have energy during the day,” said my son.

“Great,” I said. “How will we know it’s not working?”

“I’ll be crabby and will fight with you a lot,” he mumbled.

“OK. What will we do if it is working?”

“We’ll stay with my new bedtime.” (Big smile.)

“And what will we do if it’s not working?”

“Um…I don’t know. Let me get up later in the morning?”

“Noooo, but good try. We’ll go back to the old bedtime until you’re a little older.”

This was agreed upon before the new bedtime was instated. Simple, but clear and effective. And I’m happy to report, so far, so good. (Though I’ll let you know if that changes!)

How does sleep affect your child’s behavior? Do you notice a difference if he or she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep?

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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