Helping Young Children Sleep Better

Boy sleeping

Between 10% and 40% of preschoolers have significant sleep problems, making them more likely to struggle in school, struggle with emotions and behavior and develop obesity. Dr. Michelle Garrison is investigating how a new approach can help parents fix these problems and improve their children’s health – and their family’s quality of life.

“Some of the parents I talk to are so exhausted that they regularly fall asleep while driving,” Garrison says. “It shows you how desperate things can get when your child isn’t sleeping.”

Garrison is leading a pilot study that is helping the families of 42 children with sleep problems develop better sleep habits and bedtime routines. The study starts with having each child spend a week wearing an ActiGraph – a watch-like device that measures their movement and sleep. At the same time, parents keep a diary of how the child is sleeping. This helps the researchers pinpoint a child’s problems.

“We see everything from children who fight going to bed and take two hours to fall asleep, to kids who wake up several times a night,” says Garrison, a principal investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development.

After Garrison’s team finishes its assessment, a case manager visits the family and teaches them about how healthier habits, such as avoiding TV and other media before bed, can make it easier for kids to fall asleep and get better rest. The case manager also helps the family develop new sleep routines that are tailored to their needs. For instance, parents whose kids can’t sit still at bedtime are taught to guide them through an animal yoga routine that helps the child calm down. Other families are taught to use sensory cues, such as massaging their child with scented lotion, that signal it’s time to relax.

“A lot of parents get stuck on the idea that there’s one ideal routine of brushing your child’s teeth, reading a book and tucking them in,” Garrison says, “but that doesn’t always work for every child.”

After families follow the new routine for three months, they repeat the diary and actigraphy to help Garrison’s team see if a child’s sleep has gotten better. If the interventions are effective, Garrison plans to seek funding for a randomized trial that tests them on 400 to 500 families.

Her goal is for that larger study to be the backbone of a project that investigates how the interventions affect sleep problems – and the health and behavior issues that go along with them – long-term.

“I’d love to follow those kids until they’re about 10 years old, so we could get a complete picture of how sleep impacts things like their ability to learn in school, and their social and emotional skills,” Garrison says.

She also envisions developing an online tool that makes it easy for parents everywhere to design better bedtime routines and develop healthier sleep habits as a family. It’s all part of her mission of improving families’ lives by improving how they sleep.

“If you improve a child’s sleep, you have a direct impact on so many other health problems, and the families are really grateful because they see the benefit immediately,” Garrison says. “That makes it a really rewarding field to work in.”