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Kids' Mental Development Slows With Sleep Apnea, Breathing Problems

Sleep is an important component of optimal health. Past research has pointed out clearly that insufficient rest will result in increased rates of cancer and diabetes, while optimizing your sleep can slow down the aging process. Nevertheless, many parents -- forced to juggle between home, work and caring for others -- have a tough time getting enough sleep. So it's not all that surprising to me their babies and small children aren't either.

That can lead to one scary problem because babies and small children who miss out on their necessary sleep due to breathing problems tend to score lower on tests of mental development and intelligence than do other children their age, according to a pair of National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies.

One study found that at one year of age, infants who have apnea (multiple, brief breathing pauses) or slow heart rates during sleep scored lower on mental development tests than did other infants of the same age. The latter showed 5-year-old children who had frequent snoring, loud or noisy breathing during sleep, or sleep apneas observed by parents scored lower on intelligence, memory, and other standard cognitive tests than other children their age and were also more likely to have behavioral problems.

More than 10 percent of young children have habitual snoring, the mildest form of sleep-disordered breathing. One to 3 percent of children have obstructive sleep apnea, a more severe form of sleep-disordered breathing in which breathing stops briefly and repeatedly during sleep.

Sleep-disordered breathing is thought to be more common in toddlers and younger children than in older children because the younger ones are more likely to have large tonsils and adenoids, which can briefly block the airways in the back of the throat during sleep.

Two big concerns:

  • African-American children are twice as likely to develop breathing disorders that affect sleep compared to white children.
  • Overweight or obese children are also more likely to develop these problems.

A study released earlier this year on children and their sleep patterns found toddlers sleep about two hours a week less and preschoolers more than four hours less than the minimum needed to function at their fullest capacity. In the case of older kids, bad nutritional habits and excessive TV watching probably have a lot to do with their poor sleep habits.

As far as babies are concerned, an excellent article by Dr. Linda Folden Palmer cited one study that found better body temperature and superior oxygenation in pre-term infants receiving breast milk. Formula-fed infants demonstrated many episodes of inadequate oxygenation and some apnea, both of which were not seen among the breastfed infants. That's why I recommend breastfeeding your newborn is the best way to give him or her all the nutrients they need.

Science Daily October 8, 2004

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