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Parents Sleeping Badly? They May Think Their Children Are, Too

Every parent's dream: a soundly sleeping child.
Every parent's dream: a soundly sleeping child.

Funny how feelings about sleep change over the years. Many children fight bedtime and are still getting up once or more during the night well into childhood. Meantime, adults often feel they can never get enough sleep and, if they're anything like me, have vivid fantasies about napping.

Now a study suggests that parents' own sleep quality may bias how they perceive their child's sleep issues.

The study, conducted in Finland, looked at 100 children ages 2 to 6. Their parents filled out questionnaires about the sleep quality of their kids and also of themselves. And for a week, the children wore an actigraph, which is a wearable band that measures movement and can estimate periods of sleep. Think of it as a souped-up Fitbit.

The authors found that parents with their own sleep problems more frequently reported that their children had sleeping difficulties, even when the actigraph data suggested differently. "People who sleep poorly overestimate their children's sleep problems," said Marko Elovainio, a professor of psychology at the University of Helsinki and an author of the study, which appears Thursday in the journal Pediatrics.

And that could be important, since the diagnosis and treatment of the child's sleep issues is often based on reports by parents. "Physicians shouldn't be relying on that," but should also try to use more objective measures and to weigh the potential role of a parent's own sleeping problems, said Elovainio.

Previous studies have shown that tired people are more likely to experience and remember negative events and details, the authors noted. So it would make sense that tired parents might overstate difficulties with getting a child to go to bed and stay there.

This conclusion comes with some caveats. The actigraph used to measure sleep patterns in the study hasn't been specifically validated for pediatric sleep studies. Actigraph data generally isn't as accurate for children as it is for adults, though algorithms can help make it more accurate.

"Adults can lie still without sleeping, while children may toss and turn all night," said Lisa Meltzer, a pediatric sleep psychologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, who wasn't involved in the study. So the actigraph can underestimate sleep time in kids.

That may explain why the actigraph data put the average sleep time for children in the study — most of whom were 3 or 4 years old — at 8.5 hours. If that's really the amount of sleep they were getting, the kids weren't necessarily sleeping well, says Meltzer. (The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 2-year-olds get 11 to 14 hours of sleep a day; preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours; and school-aged kids get 9 to 11 hours. Those numbers include naps.)

Also, the study included mostly white, educated families, whose experiences may not extend to families in other demographic groups. And more than a quarter of these children slept in their parents' bedroom, which might affect sleep. Rates of room- and bed-sharing vary from country to country.

The authors said future diagnostic methods and treatments for children with reported sleep problems should also consider the role of parents and siblings. "Sleep is a family issue," said Meltzer.

In practice, that means that when a parent seeks help for a child's sleeping problems, it's important to make sure sleep is a priority for the whole family, she said.

One place to start: Set an example by getting distracting devices out of the bedroom, she says. If your kids see you with a phone or tablet or TV in the bedroom, they're going to want one for themselves.

Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's on Twitter: @katherinehobson

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Katherine Hobson