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When it comes to bleary-eyed teens struggling to stay awake after yet another night of disrupted sleep, social media (and social drama) are often first to be blamed.

Research that has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health suggests the all-too-common story of sleep deprivation in teens might be a little more complicated.

“Our results highlight that in addition to concurrent lifestyle and health factors, early life programming such as maternal mental health problems and smoking in late pregnancy significantly increase the risk offspring sleep problems later in life,” says the study’s first author Dr Yaqoot Fatima, a researcher from James Cook University’s Centre for Rural and Remote Health in Mount Isa.

Up to 40 percent of teenagers are thought to suffer from poor quality sleep at some point, a problem that risks more than a grumpy moods and low attention spans the next day.

Mounting evidence points to severe consequences for chronic sleep deprivation during this critical period of development, potentially raising the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.

With such health problems at stake, it’s surprising that we don’t know more about the nature of sleep problems in children and how they progress.

“The research on adolescent sleep problem is still in the early stages,” says Fatima.

“Although there is plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence on the growing rates of short sleep in the young population, the literature on sleep problem is scarce compared with the adult and older population.”

Poor and interrupted sleep is a phase many kids go through at some point. For some children, it’s also the start of a lifetime of difficulties getting adequate rest.

Knowing how to tell the difference between transient and persistent challenges would go a long way in prescribing interventions that might help avoid future health problems.

The researchers used data previously gathered as part of a pregnancy study conducted on infants born in 1981. Follow-up evaluations were periodically conducted on the children into adulthood, providing vital details on prenatal health, early childhood behaviour, and sleep patterns.

Focussing on just over 5,000 adolescents roughly 14 years of age, the team used self-reported surveys to measure the prevalence of difficulties getting to sleep, sleep-talking, nightmares, and snoring, using them to indicate severity of sleep deprivation.

These were compared with a range of variables, including their mother’s mental health, smoking and drinking habits during gestation, relationship stresses, family income levels, and parenting styles.

Not only are a considerable number of Australian adolescents failing to get a decent night’s sleep, the researchers learned they could predict which teens were likely to suffer sleep deprivation based on prenatal and early childhood experiences.

For example, having a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or a history of sleep trouble, were strong indicators for having difficulty getting to sleep in adolescence.

Once asleep, just over a quarter of teenagers indicated they suffered nightmares, a problem that seems to be linked to factors such as their mother’s smoking habit during the third trimester of their pregnancy, and the quality of their mother’s relationship with her partner.

None of these links are assumed to describe a cause. Whatever the relationship happens to be, it’s unlikely to be clear-cut.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the information was provided through self-reported surveys, making it hard to rule out biases based on recall or interpretation of key terms.

With caveats in mind, the research builds a solid case for taking a wide range of variables into account from gestation through early childhood in determining a level of concern over adolescent sleeping patterns.

“There is a need to improve the awareness of the general public, pregnant women and caregivers on the risk factors and health outcomes associated with poor sleep in young people,” says Fatima.

Nobody likes a grumpy 14 year old. But when that adolescent runs a risk of serious health conditions later in life, there is an imperative to find ways for them to get a good night’s sleep.

Dr Yaqoot Fatima 

Research Fellow

Centre for Rural and Remote Health

Fatima, YaqootDoi, Suhail A.R., and Al Mamun, Abdulla (2018) Sleep problems in adolescence and overweight/obesity in young adults: is there a causal link? Sleep Health, 4 (2). pp. 154-159. doi: 10.1515/ijamh-2018-0048

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