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Persistent sleep problems in infancy may increase childhood anxiety risk

By Melanie Hinze
New Australian research has found that infants with persistent, severe sleep problems during their first year of life are at increased risk of anxiety and emotional disorders during childhood.

Published in the British Medical Journal, this prospective longitudinal community cohort study was based on 1460 mothers’ questionnaires and interviews at 15 weeks’ gestation and three, six, nine and 12­-months postpartum. Measures assessed included parental report of infant night waking, sleep problems and child mental health.

Overall, 19.4% of infants had persistent, severe sleep problems, 56% had moderate or fluctuating sleep problems and 24.7% were settled. Those infants with persistent, severe sleep problems were 2.7 times more likely to report emotional symptoms at age 4 years and 2.37 times more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for an emotional disorder at 10 years of age compared with their settled counterparts.

At age 10 years, these children also had more than double the risk of having elevated symptoms of separation anxiety, fearing physical injury and overall elevated anxiety than those in the settled group.

Associate Professor Caroline Donovan, Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at the School of Applied Psychology at Griffith University, Brisbane, said this was an interesting and important study that had addressed a somewhat under­-researched area.

She told Medicine Today that previous research had shown that sleep problems in preschool children predicted anxiety in primary school and adolescence and further into adulthood. However, this study took those findings one step further, suggesting that the sleep problems could be traced back to infancy.

‘The important thing here is that sleep problems are not necessarily transient states that children simply grow out of, and, in fact, should be treated as early as possible in order to potentially avert the otherwise problematic trajectories towards anxiety problems,’ she said. She added that this is something GPs could be mindful of when seeing infants with sleep problems.
Arch Dis Child 2020; 0: 1-6; doi:10.1136/archdischild-2019-318014.