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Do Children With Insomnia Become Adults With Insomnia?

February 18, 2022

Pediatricians spend a lot of time talking about sleep. A lot of children have problems going to sleep and staying asleep during the night, and the rate of children with sleep issues seems to be increasing. Part of it may be because of the proliferation of screens – parents often have difficulty limiting access to televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, and cell phones.

I never really thought about the trajectory of insomnia over the long term – in other words, if you have sleep problems as a child, will you have sleep problems as an adolescent – or as an adult?

I was thus intrigued when I saw the title of an article being early released this week by Pediatrics: “Trajectories of Insomnia Symptoms from Childhood through Young Adulthood” (10.1542/peds.2021-053616).

In this article, Dr. Julie Fernandez-Mendoza and colleagues from Penn State University report their findings from a remarkable study in which they conducted surveys and sleep studies in young children, repeated the surveys and sleep studies when the participants were adolescents, and then conducted surveys when the participants were adults. They followed 502 individuals for 15 years! The participants had a median age of 9 years at the time of the first measurements and 24 years at the time of the third measurements.

Insomnia was defined as a self-report or parent report of often or very often having difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep and/or use of over-the-counter or prescription sleep medicine.

While there are many interesting findings in this article, the major finding was that the most common trajectory was that children with insomnia continued to have insomnia through adolescence and into adulthood; 43% of children with insomnia had persistent insomnia. Similarly, for children who did not have insomnia, 48% continued to not have problems with insomnia.

I frequently tell parents that sleep is one of the most important things that parents can teach their children – but many parents do not see this as being a teachable skill. Many believe that their child will “outgrow” their sleep problems and do not see the need to establish bedtime and sleep routines. Unfortunately, this study says that these children probably will not outgrow these sleep problems.

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