A study conducted in Finland observed 100 kids ages 2 to 6, with their parents being asked to answer questions concerning their children's sleep quality and their own — and the results showed that parents too often project their own sleep problems onto their kids.
For one week, the youngsters wore an "actigraph," which is a bracelet that measures movement and can estimate the amount of sleep a person has gotten, reports NPR's Katherine Hobson.
The researchers found that parents who had sleep problems of their own were more likely to report their children had sleeping disturbances, even though the actigraph suggested the kids were not having problems.
"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.
This misjudgment can be significant because physicians diagnose and treat children's sleep habits by questioning their parents. The study's authors caution doctors to use more objective measures when working with young people and to consider the parents' sleeping problems as well.
In previous studies, researchers have found that sleep-deprived people are likelier to encounter and remember adverse details and events. This deprivation could be a reason that tired parents tend to exaggerate difficulties with getting kids to bed and keeping them in bed for the night.
But actigraph readings are sometimes not as accurate for children as for grown-ups. Also, since children move around more as they sleep it is possible the actigraph may underestimate the amount of time a child sleeps, added a pediatric sleep psychologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, who was not a part of the study.
The children in the study, who were mostly 3-and 4-year olds, were averaging 8.5 hours a night of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that 2-year-olds get 11 to 14 hours of sleep a night. For preschoolers, they prescribe 10 to 13 hours, and for school-aged young ones they recommend 9 to 11 hours.
The participants in the study included mostly white, educated families, and over a quarter of the children slept in the same bedroom as their parents, all of which have the potential to affect sleep habits. The sharing of beds and bedrooms vary among countries.
"Parents who are stressed out and have poor sleeping quality are more disturbed themselves by little noises and awakenings of their children during the night than those parents who sleep better," said senior study author Dr. Helena Lapinleimu, a pediatrics researcher at the University Hospital of Turku in Finland.
According to Lisa Rapaport of Reuters, the researchers asked parents if their kids were excessively sleepy or drowsy, had trouble falling and staying asleep, or exhibited talking, jerking, or cramping during their sleep time.
Adjustments were made for factors such as the child's number of siblings, age, gender, chronic illnesses, and medications. It is possible that the range of ages in the children who were subjects might have skewed the results because the sleep routines and needs of children are very different for kids in the age range of 2 to 6.
Parents involved in the study did not wear actigraphs, which meant it was not possible to know the exact sleep routines of the adults.
The American Academy of Pediatrics website notes that the study "Poor Parental Sleep and the Reported Sleep Quality of their Children" required parents to keep a sleep diary for their children, complete a Sleep Disturbance Scale for Children questionnaire, and take the Jenkin's Sleep Scale and a 12-item general health questionnaire.