The Scary Link Between Kids’ Sleep and Mental Health

A bad night or two is no big deal, but kids with persistent sleep problems could be at risk.

girl-sleeping
Photo by David De Lossy/Getty Images

Small children and sleep problems often seem to be synonymous—and the typical advice (and hope) it that “this too shall pass.” But serious sleep problems could be a harbinger of mental health problems down the line, according to a new study. The research, published in the May issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, identifies a link between sleep disorders at age four and an increased risk for psychiatric disorders at age six.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology researchers surveyed about 800 children in Norway for the study. They conducted diagnostic interviews with their parents when the kids were four, and then again two years later.

“It is common for children to have periods when they sleep poorly, but for some children, the problems are so extensive that they constitute a sleep disorder,” Silje Steinsbekk, an associate professor and psychologist in the university’s Department of Psychology, said in a statement. “Our research shows that it is important to identify children with sleep disorders, so that remedial measures can be taken. Sleeping little affects a child's day-to-day functioning, but we are seeing that there are also long term repercussions.”

Insomnia was the most common sleep disorder in the study, affecting just over 16 percent of the four-year-olds, and the condition seemed to up the risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as behavioral problems, when the children turned six. Other sleep disorders studied included hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) and parasomnias, which include nightmares, night terrors, and sleepwalking—they all were relatively uncommon. The study also suggested that the tie between sleep and mental health might go both ways: poor sleep could cause mental health problems, and mental health conditions can trigger bad sleep.

How can you tell if your child is struggling with insomnia? The most obvious symptom is persistent difficulty falling or staying asleep (or waking up too early), but other red flags include anxiety about falling asleep, daytime fatigue, mood problems, attention or memory issues, and troubles at school, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“Given that so many children suffer from insomnia, and only just over half 'outgrow it,' it is critical for us to be able to provide thorough identification and good treatment,” Steinsbekk said in the statement. “Perhaps early treatment of mental health problems can also prevent the development of sleep disorders, since psychiatric symptoms increase the risk of developing insomnia.”

If you’re concerned that your child may have insomnia or another sleep disorder, speak to your pediatrician, who can recommend treatments or order a sleep study if necessary.