Sleep crucial for children's development, study shows

University of Wollongong researcher Dr Christopher Magee says increased screen time can affect a child's sleep patterns. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR
University of Wollongong researcher Dr Christopher Magee says increased screen time can affect a child's sleep patterns. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Lack of sleep in children can impede their physical, emotional and cognitive development, a University of Wollongong study has shown.

UOW researcher Christopher Magee used the Medicare Australia data of almost 3000 children aged from newborns to six years.

Analysis of the longitudinal study, an ongoing national study that began in 2004, had parents complete sleep journals and answer interview questions about their child's sleep patterns, as well as questions concerning health and wellbeing and cognitive functioning.

An analysis of the data identified four distinct groups of children - typical sleepers, persistent short sleepers, poor sleepers and initial short sleepers (those children who begin life as short sleepers, but by the age of five get as much sleep as a typical sleeper).

The research concluded that those children with typical sleep patterns had better health outcomes than those children who fell within the other three categories.

Typical sleepers were those children who slept the most as infants (about 14 hours) and gradually decreased their sleep duration as they grew. By seven they slept on average almost 11 hours per night.

Those with the poorest long-term health outcomes had less than 10 hours of sleep as an infant and later in childhood experienced a reduced score on the quality of life scale.

"Sleep influences a child's development because they are more fatigued during the day and this can adversely impact on their learning ability," says Dr Magee, who is deputy director at the UOW's Centre for Health Initiatives.

The results, which were published in the latest issue of the American journal Paediatrics, suggest that increased television and computer use could partly be to blame.

"Children who sleep less engage in more screen time because they are tired and less motivated to be active," says Dr Magee.

"This can have an impact on the child's physical and emotional well-being over time. It's a cascading effect."

Other influences affecting the regulation of sleep patterns include genetics and environmental and social factors such as household financial hardship.

Parents should encourage good sleep patterns by having regular bedtimes, limiting television viewing and electronic media, particularly stimulating games, near bedtime as exposure to light can increase arousal levels.

Australian guidelines recommend children engage in no more than two hours of screen time per day.

Dr Magee is also the lead author in another study, published last year, which showed lack of sleep in children could result in childhood obesity.

However, the more recent study points towards increased screen time as an underlying factor in the relationship between sleep problems and obesity issues.

He says children are sleeping about an hour less per night compared with children a hundred years ago.

He urged parents to promote a balanced lifestyle for their children, which included a healthy diet, increased activity and getting sufficient sleep for their age.


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