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Once a Bad Sleeper, Always a Bad Sleeper?

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Earlier this year, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that babies with sleep troubles were more likely to turn into preschoolers with sleep troubles. Researchers followed mom-infant pairs for three years to determine whether sleep problems were persistent in young children. They saw that the ones who were waking frequently or sleeping too little at 6-, 12-, or 24-months-old were three to five times as likely to be doing the same two years later.

The findings echo earlier research. For example, a previous study in the same journal found that babies with sleep problems (defined as taking an hour or more to fall asleep ,or waking at least three times a night) at 8-months were roughly twice as likely as their good-sleeper counterparts to have a nighttime problem later in childhood.

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If you have a little night owl in the house, this might sound like discouraging news. But a closer look paints a more optimistic picture. Consider this year’s Pediatrics study: Approximately 30 percent of infants and toddlers with sleep problems (as opposed to only 6 percent of babies without sleep problems) were troubled sleepers a year or two later. But that means 70 percent of those babies actually did turn into peacefully sleeping preschoolers. In other words, odds are good that fitful sleep will turn restful down the road. In fact, a 2006 study found that most children between ages 8 and 24 months move in and out of sleeplessness, and only 6 percent have a persistent sleep problem.

When I ask friends and readers whether sleep woes are temporary, most say that they are. Plenty of moms tell me they spent months bouncing on a yoga ball with a wide-eyed infant, or endured crazy-making toddler bedtime resistance — only to end up with a fairly good, consistently sleeping preschooler. Some babies do seem to be naturally better self-soothers and easy sleepers, while others take much more shushing, rocking, and overall helping to sleep. But in the end, most little ones eventually work it out and find their way to a full night.

Whether good sleepers and bad sleepers stay that way, however, doesn’t answer the question of why: nature or nurture? For the ones who continue having sleep problems, it could be temperament and personality (a light sleeper, or a child with more difficulty separating), but the environment makes a difference, too. Inconsistency in bedtimes or well-meaning parents who over-help can also get in the way of a full night’s rest, in babyhood and beyond.

The typical sleep woes, like resisting bedtime, are one thing, but clinical issues are different — and this is where researchers and doctors agree that you can’t just ignore early sleep problems. For example, kids who snore (a relatively common nighttime behavior that many parents assume is harmless) are at a significantly higher risk for sleep apnea, a serious condition in which a person stops breathing briefly, but repeatedly, throughout the night. Kids whose sleep is disrupted by snores certainly shouldn’t be left to grow out of the problem, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is why they recently urged parents and doctors to pay more attention here. Kids with persistent sleep problems — for example, those who are chronically sleep-deprived and get too few hours of nightly slumber on a regular basis — are also at higher risk for behavior problems, and even obesity or diabetes.

When it comes to the normal family sleep habits, though, a mix of good sleep genes and healthy sleep routines are probably at work. Yes, some of our babies come into the world programmed for deep slumber, but how we relate to them around sleep also makes a big impact.

“Bad sleep” is also in the eye of the beholder. One parent’s definition of a problem (for instance, the midnight padding of tiny feet and a toddler sleeping adjacent to them minutes later) might be another family’s ideal. One friend tells me she has been quick to label her son as a “bad sleeper,” but he goes to bed very early and wakes up with the sunrise (and actually gets 11 hours); she’s the one who ends up not sleeping enough.

For me, good sleep has to meet two qualifications: the arrangements have to work for the whole family and everyone (newborns and other extenuating circumstances aside), including mom and dad, should be getting long, healthy, and consistent sleep. That might sound like a pipe dream, but sleep is important enough that we should strive to make it our goal.

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