Children with autism are waking up frequently and getting less sleep than their typically developing peers, researchers say, and the troubles may contribute to learning and behavior issues.
In a long-term study published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, researchers found that poor sleep is affecting many children with autism into the tween years.
Researchers looked at data on more than 14,000 children born in 1991 and 1992 in England, 86 of whom were ultimately diagnosed with autism. Parents were asked about the kids’ sleep habits at eight different points when their children were between the ages of 6 months and 11 years. The children’s intelligence, social and communication skills were also assessed at age 7.
While there appeared to be no difference in the kids’ sleeping habits before 30 months, after that point those with autism tended to get between 17 and 43 minutes less sleep per day. This came as the result of later bedtimes, earlier wake times and frequent waking during the night, the study found.
What’s more, 13 percent of kids on the spectrum woke more than three times per night compared to just 5 percent of typically developing kids, with the problem becoming more pronounced as they grew older.
The differences persisted even when researchers accounted for factors like prematurity, low birthweight, maternal education and social class, the researchers said.
Although it’s unclear what’s causing the sleep troubles, previous studies have suggested that the issue may be related to problems with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin in some children with autism.
“This research emphasizes the importance of assessing sleep disturbances early in children with ASD, to offer support and anticipatory guidance to parents and to consider the use of melatonin to reduce sleep latency,” wrote British and Canadian researchers in the study.