Lack of Sleep in Preschool Years Linked to ADHD; Too Much TV to Blame?

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Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common child behavioral diagnosis, affecting approximately 2 million children. By the age of 4, as many as 40% of children have sufficient problems with inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity to be a concern. A new study, conducted by researchers at SRI International, finds that preschoolers who do not get enough sleep are more likely than other children to have ADHD symptoms by the time they reach kindergarten.

Most children with ADHD are not diagnosed before age 5, but because these kids are at a significant risk for social and academic difficulties, researchers are beginning to focus on very early childhood for identifying causes for the disorder so that interventions can start earlier, facilitating better outcomes.

Erika Gaylor, a senior researcher at SRI, an independent nonprofit research institute based in Menlo Park California, examined the sleeping patterns of about 6,860 children by questioning parents about bedtimes and wake times. The parents were also asked to evaluate ADHD-like symptoms in their children, including attention and task persistence, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Read: Colicky Babies May Later Be at Higher Risk for ADHD

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Children who were reported by their parents to sleep less were also deemed to be more hyperactive and less attentive compared to their peers in kindergarten. Gaylor had previously found that having a consistent bedtime was the most reliable predictor of positive developmental outcomes by age 4.

"These findings suggest that some children who are not getting adequate sleep may be at risk for developing behavioral problems manifested by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and problems sitting still and paying attention," said Gaylor, who presented the findings at the 25th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC.

Although not presented as a factor in this study, previous research from Wake Forest University found that television watching in preschool children can have an effect on sleeping patterns. Communication professor Marina Krcmar specifically found that programs that contained violence often caused the children to experience nightmares and thus wake up tired. Even characters that adults may think of as benign, such as some of the monsters on Sesame Street, can be disturbing to young children.

Read: Poor Sleep Linked to Kids Who Bully

Krcmar suggests that parents offer physical comfort to young children who are frightened about something that they saw on television. Because young children have a difficult time distinguishing reality from fantasy until about age 6, just offering support and protection is likely to ease their fears.

Other tips for parents when their children aren’t sleeping well include setting a schedule for both sleep and wake times and sticking to that schedule, even on weekends. Make bedtime special by reading a book or having a certain routine to follow such as cuddling, praying, or singing a lullaby. If small children are afraid of the dark, use a dim night light so they can see that they are safe, but ensure it isn’t so bright that the brain misinterprets the signal and disrupts the sleep-wake cycle.

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