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Short sleep duration not associated with poor health in children

Research News
Tuesday, September 8, 2015 - 4:15pm
Researchers from Murdoch Children's Research Institute are challenging guidelines that specify optimum sleep duration for children.

Sleep problems are common in childhood, and associated with poorer health and wellbeing for children and their parents. It is often assumed that children’s sleep duration is the key factor underpinning sleep problems. However, researchers from the Institute found that the amount of sleep alone is not the most important thing for health and wellbeing. This means that the current guidelines regarding children’s short sleep duration may be misguided. 

The study, which was published in Sleep Medicine, looked at the sleep patterns of over 4,000 four to nine year old children using time diaries and investigated whether there are optimal sleep thresholds for children for health and wellbeing. 

The study showed there were only weak associations between sleep duration and a range of child and parent health and wellbeing and that the associations were inconsistent across ages and measures. Furthermore, researchers also found there were no apparent thresholds of child sleep duration marking improvements or reductions in child or parent health and wellbeing.

Researchers looked at a range of measures including parent and child mental health, health-related quality of life, body mass index and waist circumference, language, literacy and mathematical thinking.  

Lead researcher, Dr Anna Price said the study’s findings are at odds with the literature and theory underpinning current sleep recommendations.

“Existing literature supports the notion that shorter sleep is associated with poorer child and parent health and wellbeing, however we found, at most, modest associations between decreasing sleep duration and some poorer child and parent measures at some ages and no associations at other points.  The few scattered ‘significant’ associations are likely to be due to chance, as occurs with multiple comparisons.”

“The results suggest that sleep duration in itself is not a strong driver for good or poor health outcomes in children. However, we know that children with sleep problems do have poorer health and wellbeing, so the next step is to find out exactly what drives sleep problems, if it isn’t sleep duration.”

Researchers say that it may be that other aspects of sleep are important, such as timing, when children go to bed and wake up - and fragmentation, such as waking up throughout the night or how long it takes to fall asleep. 

“Encouragingly, these results mean health professionals can reassure parents that sleep duration at any one age or time point is not a clear indicator of poorer health and wellbeing,” Dr Price said. 

Read more about Dr Price's research here: