NEW YORK - Screening kids for sleeping problems and discussing sleep strategies with parents could help youngsters settle into school with better nighttime routines, suggests new research from Australia. Researchers found that when they had sleep-related consultations with parents, kids tended to have fewer sleep problems and better bedtime habits than children whose parents didn't get counselled.
The study was small and didn't demonstrate that the sleep improvements led to changes in kids' academic achievements later in the year.
Still, the findings show that "sleep problems are common in young school children and are treatable using ... a brief behavior-based intervention," study author Jon Quach, from the University of Melbourne, told Reuters Health in an email.
"Parents should seek advice for their child's sleep if they are concerned," he added.
In five- and six-year-olds, most sleep problems are related to kids' behavior, researchers say.
"Some of them still have poor sleep habits where they are going to bed too late, they don't have a bedtime routine, and many of them are still having parents stay with them when they go to sleep at night," said pediatric sleep specialist Jodi Mindell, from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study.
"You also get in this age group some night-time fears," she said, and anxiety might increase as those kids start school.
The current study focused on that back-to-school time frame and included kids who were headed into their first year of elementary school. That's an important window for addressing sleep problems, Quach said, because kids who don't sleep well might have more trouble making the transition to school, which sets them up for worse academic performance and poorer relationships later on.
Quach and his colleagues surveyed about 1,500 parents of kids starting at 22 different elementary schools in Melbourne. Of these parents, 161 said their child had a moderate or severe sleeping problem and 108 were recruited for the study. Kids with more serious sleep-related breathing problems, for instance, were excluded.
Half of the participating parents had a private consultation at school, followed by a telephone call two weeks later, to discuss behavioral sleep strategies based on their kid's specific issues. The other half weren't offered any extra help.
Over the next year, the researchers surveyed parents again about their kids' shut-eye. Six months after the initial consultation, they also gave all kids a learning assessment.
Sleep issues tended to resolve in both groups, the researchers reported in Pediatrics. Still, kids whose parents had sleep-related counselling generally did better.
After six months, 26 percent of kids in the consultation group and 47 percent in the no-consultation group still had moderate or severe sleep problems. By one year, however, there was no difference and about one-third of kids in both groups had sleep problems.
Kids in the consultation group had less resistance at bedtime and took less time to go to bed, according to their parents' reports. But there was no difference in how well they did on academic tests designed to measure reading, math and spelling skills.
Quach and colleagues noted that the study was small and that a follow-up including more kids will be needed -- including one that tracks students' progress for more than a year. It may be that sleep improvements would take a while to translate into better academic skills, they explained.
Mindell said "there's no question" that this sort of program could work in U.S. schools, with school counselors or nurses doing the sleep consultations. "I think this is a wake-up call to teachers and school psychologists that they need to always be looking for sleep problems," she told Reuters Health.
For now, she pointed to a few key tips for parents of young kids who have sleeping trouble.
The "really simple changes," she said, include: "Making sure your child goes to bed before nine -- we know that that's the tipping point; including reading as part of that bedtime routine -- it helps calm children down, it gives them a focus, it helps with literacy, it's all good; then encouraging children to fall asleep on their own."
Finally, make sure there are no distracting electronics in kids' bedrooms, she said. "Get rid of the Game Boys, get rid of the computers, get rid of the cell phones."