Childhood insomnia symptoms may linger into adulthood, study finds

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Experts say childhood sleeping problems may develop into serious, long-term issues

A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State explored how kids who struggle to get quality, restful sleep may be affected during adulthood. According to their findings, insomnia experienced during childhood may create more serious insomnia symptoms during adulthood. 

“The key finding of this study is that insomnia symptoms in childhood are much more likely to persist over time than we previously believed,” said researcher Julio Fernandez-Mendoza.

“Those with insomnia symptoms and laboratory-measured short sleep duration are much more likely to evolve to develop a clinical condition in early adulthood, and not just to persist with the symptoms. So, parents and clinicians should not assume that insomnia symptoms are benign complaints that will go away with age. That’s not what our study shows for a significant portion of youth.” 

Long-term insomnia risks

For the study, the researchers followed over 500 children through young adulthood. The kids and their parents answered questions about sleeping patterns and overall quality of sleep, and the team followed up with the participants when they were teenagers and again during young adulthood. The children also participated in a sleep study that checked for any serious sleep disorders and monitored sleep quality. 

The researchers learned that issues with sleep during childhood are likely to impact sleeping patterns during adulthood. Of the children involved in the study, 43% who had insomnia symptoms during childhood had persistent symptoms in young adulthood; the researchers also found that nearly 20% of the children with insomnia experienced spikes in symptoms throughout adulthood. 

“We know that not everyone who complains of insomnia symptoms has the same degree of sleep disturbance when sleep is measured objectively in the laboratory, so it was important that our study included these objective in-lab measurements in addition to the self-reports,” Fernandez-Mendoza said.

“Indeed, the study found that insomnia symptoms in adolescents who slept short in the lab were 5.5 times more likely to worsen into adult insomnia, while those who reported the same insomnia symptoms and slept normally in the lab were not at an increased risk of worsening into adult insomnia.” 

While it’s not completely clear why some children struggle with sleep, the researchers identified several factors that could come into play, including medical issues, behavioral cues, and psychiatric disorders. They learned that kids who struggle with migraines or stomach issues, those who never want to go to sleep, or those with depression may have a higher risk of developing disordered sleeping habits. 

The researchers explained that sleep disorders can impact consumers’ mental and physical health long-term, and it’s important to seek out interventions that may help alleviate insomnia-related symptoms. 

“We know that sleep is related to adverse health outcomes,” Fernandez-Mendoza said. “We suspect that many children who experience insomnia symptoms that persist into adulthood will also suffer from some negative health consequences.” 

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