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Childhood Sleep Problems are Linked to Substance Abuse in Young Adults

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Parents of toddlers who are growing weary of holding the line on bedtimes and naptimes should take a look at the results of a study which appeared in a June 2010 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. That issue contained information from a long-term study which examined the relationship between sleep problems in youngsters and substance abuse problems in older kids.

The bottom line after years of research is that sufficient sleep is crucial and disturbed sleep in early years is predictive of problems with addictive behaviors in later life.

The study entitled “Childhood Sleep Problems, Response Inhibition, and Alcohol and Drug Outcomes in Adolescence and Young Adulthood” was headed up by Maria M. Wong of Idaho State University where she serves as an associate professor of psychology. The study followed 386 teenagers of whom 292 were boys and 94 were girls. The researchers gathered their data on children’s sleeping patterns at regular intervals: ages 3-5 years, 6-8 years, 9-11 years, 12-14 years, 15-17 years and 18-20 years. Information about sleeping was compared to reported instances of risk-taking behaviors particularly substance abuse among older teens. By the study’s end a clear link between early sleep problems and later substance abuse was evident.

Surprisingly, as many as one tenth of the parents of all three to five year olds say that their youngster has trouble sleeping. Research indicates that sleep disturbances in early childhood (3-5 year olds) set a pattern for interrupted sleep during the teen years (11-17 year olds) which further predisposes young people (18-21 year olds) to problems with drug use. It seems that being overly tired as a preschooler can negatively impact the child’s ability to control impulse behaviors later on. This same lack of sufficient rest in the early years also predicts problems with cigarette smoking (in boys), alcohol use (particularly in girls), driving while intoxicated, and alcohol binging.

Though the negative long-term impact of disturbed sleep in the early years of life seem clear, those involved with the study cannot definitively say why it is so. The connections between sleeplessness and future risk-taking behaviors is increasingly important however as studies are showing that more and more young people (ages 12-25 years) are having trouble sleeping. Studies show that more than 50 percent of 6th through 12th graders say they feel sleepy and tired and more than 30 percent of them say they have trouble sleeping at night. The substance abuse issues are added to a list of other consequences which are more expected when a person is not getting enough rest. Tired teens (and adults for that matter) have problems with moodiness, poor school work, greater risk for automobile accidents along with the increased risk of drug and alcohol use.

Proper sleep is an important part of healthy development and healthy living. Improper sleep impacts learning, socialization and even the risk of dangerous behaviors in later life. Uncertainty remains about the specifics of how these connections actually relate, but for the present, it remains a good idea to be sure that your child gets plenty of rest.

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