Can Your Insomnia Be Linked Back to Childhood Behavior?

Sleep. It can be life-changing. It’s a known key to our overall physical and mental health, regardless of age. And to many of us, it’s one of life’s greatest mysteries as to why getting it consistently can be so elusive. We wake up tired and groggy in the morning, fight our way through the day anxious for the moment we can lay our head down on that pillow again. Only once that time comes, suddenly, we’re not so tired anymore. Maybe we wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to fall back asleep, but no matter what, the cycle only seems to perpetuate itself.

Why? This is so unfair!

According to new research reported in JAMA Open Network, the root of this problem reaches back to childhood mental health for some.

Following more than 8,000 people over a four-decade study, researchers conducted sleep surveys of adults aged 42 after having assessed behavioral problems for those same people when they were 5, 10, and 16 years-old.

“The link between childhood behavior and adulthood insomnia could be partly explained by childhood sleep problems,” said Yohannes Adama Melaku, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Flinders University in Australia. “Treating behavioral and sleep problems during childhood could reduce the risk of adulthood insomnia. Establishing healthy sleep behaviors in children is important for prevention of adulthood insomnia.”

Each participant in the study was born in 1970 in the UK. Throughout their childhood and teen years, researchers conducted surveys with parents concerning certain behavioral patterns and potential problems the children might be encountering, including being fidgety; destroying or damaging things; fighting or arguing with other kids; not being liked by other kids; worrying about many things; being solitary; being fearful or anxious; missing school; upset in new situations; or a victim or perpetrator of bullying. Researchers also assessed the sleeping patterns of the children, asking parents how often their children couldn’t fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, how often they had trouble falling or staying asleep, and how often they felt unrested when they woke up in the morning. The same questions were then asked about the participants’ sleep patterns and symptoms of insomnia as adults. Melaku’s team has now compiled and analyzed that data to cross-reference with the participants’ adult sleeping patterns.

As adults, the study participants with sleep issues throughout childhood were more likely 40 percent more likely to struggle with insomnia than those who didn’t have issues through their childhood. The participants who had no sleep issues by age 5 but developed them by 16 were also 34 percent more likely to have insomnia as adults. While researchers still aren’t clear what the exact nature of the connection is, they found that approximately 16 percent of the association between childhood behavior problems and adult sleep insomnia could be indicated by having sleep challenges at 5-years old.

“Understanding how childhood behavioral challenges could cause adult sleep disturbance really depends on the reasons underlying these challenges,” said Kelly Sullivan, a researcher at Georgia Southern University who wasn’t involved in the study. “Some childhood behavior challenges are caused by adverse experiences and stress, which have been shown to biologically alter the brain and affect health, learning and behavior. Other children have underlying conditions that could impair the development of executive function and self-regulation.”

“Parents of children who have behavioral difficulties are encouraged to seek support from a healthcare provider and participate in evidence-based interventions that provide skills and resources to parents to help best support their child,”  said Nicole Racine, a psychologist at the University of Calgary and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. “Positive sleep routines that include sticking to a consistent bedtime, winding down (e.g., reading, bath, quiet play), a quiet and comfortable place to sleep, and reducing screens and television before bed are important.”

For children, many of the symptoms of lack of sleep mirror the impact it all has on adults. Irritability, increased stress, and low motivation are just a handful of symptoms. And even deeper, insufficient sleep over an extended period of time can contribute to anxiety and depression, adding support to the knowledge that sleep is an integral part of a child’s (and adult’s) mental and physical health. In the case of short term insomnia, it’s typically expected that a lack of sleep can simply coincide with events like being sick, which tend to pass over a few days’ time. However, when insomnia is sustained over periods like three weeks to a month or even longer, medical attention is always advised, as a professional can undergo the task of getting to the root of the problem and therefore, finding a solution.

Of course, this recent study is just one of many digging into the various possible causes of insomnia as well as other health concerns it may be linked to. For example, another study earlier this summer indicated survivors of natural disasters experienced disturbed sleeping patterns as a likely result of mental health problems.

"Not sticking to a regular bedtime and wakeup schedule–and getting different amounts of sleep each night–can put a person at higher risk for obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood sugar and other metabolic disorders,” wrote researchers whose work was published in the Journal Diabetes Care this summer. “In fact, for every hour of variability in time to bed and time asleep, a person may have up to a 27% greater chance of experiencing a metabolic abnormality."

Another study this summer was conducted by the University of California, Berkeley researchers who discovered a link between insomnia and the development of Alzheimer’s pathology proteins later on in life. “The researchers also found that a decrease in sleep quantity throughout aging, from the 50s through 70s, was associated with higher levels of amyloid and tau later in life,” they wrote. “This means that changes in brain activity during sleep and sleep quantity during these time frames could serve as a warning sign for Alzheimer's disease, allowing for early preventive care." 

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