A new study of sleep-disordered breathing may give the parents of young snorers something new to consider.
A six-year examination of the sleeping habits of more than 11,000 children revealed that those who exhibited sleep behaviours like snoring, mouth-breathing and apnea as infants and toddlers, were far more likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems between the ages of four and seven, than their sound-sleeping counterparts.
“We were quite startled to find that disordered breathing around 22 months is a very strong predictor of behavioural problems at both four and seven years,” says Karen Bonuck, the lead author of the study and a professor of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Behavioural problems caused by sleep disorders
The biggest increases were in hyperactive behaviours, although there were also higher levels of emotional issues like anxiety. The children with the worst, most persistent sleep-disordered breathing usually saw symptoms peak around age two and a half. “The worse the symptoms, the higher the likelihood of behavioural problems later on,” says Bonuck.
Why disordered sleep causes behaviour problems
The theory is that disordered sleep as an infant interrupts the natural homeostasis of the young brain. This prevents optimal development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s involved in processing emotions and controlling behaviour and attention.
For Ottawa paediatric respirologist Sherri Katz, these findings aren’t surprising. “I see it every day in my practice,” says Katz. “Kids who aren’t sleeping properly become paradoxically overactive during the day.”
Should parents of snorers be concerned?
“It’s tricky,” says Katz, “because about a quarter of kids will snore at some point in their childhood, but that snoring won’t necessarily have consequences on their sleep.” If, however, there are pauses longer than a couple of seconds, this may indicate obstructive sleep apnea. Fortunately, this can be very treatable, by removing the tonsils and adenoids. regular snoring that doesn’t seem to wake the child, is probably OK.
A version of this article was published in our August 2012 with the headline “Snooze alarm,” p. 54.
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