WEDNESDAY, April 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Toddlers who have trouble sleeping are more likely to become teens who use alcohol and drugs, researchers report.
Sleep problems, particularly insomnia, among boys aged 3 to 5 were strongly associated with the use of alcohol and drugs when the boys were 12 to 14 years old, according to new research in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
It's well known that adults with sleep problems are more prone to alcohol and drug use. But this is the first study to show sleep problems in young children can lead to drug and alcohol problems in adolescence, said study author Maria M. Wong, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
"And a lot of people believe there is a causal link between sleep problems and alcohol problems," she added.
But it is still not known if there really is such a link or whether it is the result of a combination of genetics and environment. The same holds true for the children in this study, Wong said.
Wong and her colleagues obtained sleep data from the mothers of 257 boys when the children were 3 to 5. The children were followed until they were 12 to 14. Among these children, two-thirds came from homes where at least one parent was an alcoholic.
Researchers found that, even among children without an alcoholic parent, those with sleep problems were more likely to start drinking and using drugs in adolescence.
In addition, among children with an alcoholic parent, who are already at high risk for drug and alcohol problems, sleep problems increased the risk further, Wong said.
If you have an alcoholic parent, you are twice as likely to have drug and alcohol problems. But sleep problems double that risk, she said.
Not all children who had sleep problems developed early use of alcohol and other drugs, Wong noted. However, almost half of the children who had sleep problems began using alcohol and drugs by the time they were 14, she added.
"Sleep problems are a risk factor for alcohol and drug problems," Wong said. "And we think parents should pay more attention to their children's sleep habits."
Parents should make sure their children have a regular sleep schedule and adequate amounts of sleep, and they should also encourage their children to do relaxing activities right before bedtime, she said.
If necessary, parents should talk to their doctors. "If sleep problems can be treated early, it might prevent the early onset of alcohol and drug use," Wong noted.
Tim Roehrs, director of research at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said the study is an important one.
"It is already known that sleep problems are associated with anxiety and depression and attention-deficit disorder," Roehrs said. This is the first data that links alcohol and drug use with sleep disorders in early childhood, he added.
Parents need to be sensitive to their children's sleep problems and try to get some help for them. Parents can speak with their doctor and can also get a referral to a sleep specialist, Roehrs said.
Whether treating sleep problems will prevent the early use of alcohol and drugs is not known, but Roehrs said the idea holds promise.