Infants with chronic serious sleep problems may be at increased risk for anxiety and emotional disorders later in childhood, according to a new study from Australia.
“Persistent disturbed sleep during infancy may be an early indicator of a child’s heightened susceptibility to later mental health difficulties — in particular, anxiety problems,” said researcher Fallon Cook and colleagues. Cook is with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne.
Sleep problems such as frequent waking at night and/or trouble falling asleep without help from a parent affect about 19% of infants under 1 year.
Previous research has linked infant sleep problems with poorer mental health in early childhood. But it’s less certain whether this risk continued into older childhood.
In this study, the researchers looked at 1,460 mother-infant pairs in Australia. The mothers provided information about their infants’ sleep patterns at ages 3, 6, 9 and 12 months, and about their children’s mental health at ages 4 and 10 years.
About 1 in 4 infants had stable sleep patterns, 56% had some sleep problems, and roughly 20% had chronic severe sleep problems.
Compared to infants with stable sleep patterns, those with persistent severe sleep problems were nearly three times more likely to have emotional problem symptoms when they were 4 years old. They were more than twice as likely to have an emotional disorder by age 10.
Emotional disorders included: separation anxiety; social phobia; agoraphobia; obsessive compulsive disorder; certain phobias; panic disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; generalized anxiety; depression, and bipolar disorder.
Infants with ongoing serious sleep problems were also more than twice as likely to have separation anxiety, fear of getting hurt physically, and to be more anxious generally by the age of 10, according to the study. But it only revealed associations and not a cause-and-effect link.
The results were published online recently in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
“Infants with persistent severe sleep problems should be monitored for emerging mental health difficulties during childhood,” the authors said in a journal news release.
The National Sleep Foundation has more on babies and sleep.