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Childhood Insomnia May Cause Anxiety Later in Life, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Kids need an adequate amount of sleep for optimum physical, mental, and emotional health.
  • A new study found children with persistent insomnia are more likely to have mood and anxiety disorders in later life.
  • Experts agree that your child will reap the benefits if you encourage good sleep habits from an early age.

Sleep is one of the main pillars of a child’s physical and emotional well-being, but many parents will be able to relate to the frustration of a kid who just won’t go to sleep or wakes several times during the night. It’s not unusual—up to 50% of children experience a sleep problem at some point.

The consequences of childhood insomnia can be far-reaching. A recent study abstracted in the journal Sleep found that persistent insomnia symptoms (defined as “moderate-to-severe difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep”) are strong determinants of mood disorders later in life. 

“Although we know that children and adolescents with insomnia symptoms are more likely to have a history of mood and anxiety disorders, we lack data on how these insomnia symptoms evolve as the child grows into adolescence and enters young adulthood,” says lead author Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Penn State College of Medicine. 

A Closer Look at the Study

Fernandez-Mendoza and his team sought to gain a better understanding of the course of childhood insomnia symptoms by analyzing data from the Penn State Child Cohort, a population-based sample of 700 children with a median age of 9 years. The researchers had followed up with 421 participants when they were adolescents, then when they were young adults.

“Young adults who had chronic, unrelenting insomnia symptoms since childhood (age 9) through adolescence (age 16) were three times more likely to report having mood or anxiety disorders at age 24, even after accounting for those who already have had a history of or treatment for such disorders earlier in life,” says Fernandez-Mendoza. 

Julio Fernandez-Mendoza

There are safe therapies based on good clinical and research evidence that are effective in helping children sleep better. These are currently delivered by sleep specialists but can be incorporated as part of standard pediatric primary care.

— Julio Fernandez-Mendoza

However, it’s not all bad news. Children who outgrew their insomnia symptoms before transitioning to adolescence—and remained free of them—were not at risk of having mood and anxiety disorders in young adulthood.

“We would have expected to observe at least some risk but these kids were doing fine, which supports the view that early treatment of childhood insomnia can have an important impact on preventing future mental health problems,” Fernandez-Mendoza says. 

Fernandez-Mendoza believes that behavioral therapies for insomnia symptoms in childhood should become standard. "It should not be left up to parents being 'coached,' as there are safe therapies based on good clinical and research evidence that are effective in helping children sleep better," he says. "These are currently delivered by sleep specialists, but can be incorporated as part of standard pediatric primary care."

What Does Insomnia Look Like in Kids? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children age 6 to 12 years sleep for 9 to 12 hours per night for optimal health.

Parents should watch out for their child getting too few hours of sleep several times a week, feeling tired during the day, or needing to nap every day, says Daniel Ganjian, MD, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Loud snoring or choking while sleeping are other reasons to seek medical advice. 

“We diagnose insomnia in children by taking a thorough history of the child, which includes an evaluation of the child's sleep schedule,” Dr. Ganjian explains. “For cases that are not clear, we use a sleep study to provide data about how the child sleeps.” 

What This Means For You

To encourage good sleep habits in your child, try to stick to consistent sleep and wake times, even on the weekends. Keep their bedroom cool, avoid screens in the two hours before bedtime, and dim the lights an hour before bedtime to help the body get into "sleep" mode.

If your child is showing any symptoms of insomnia, ask their pediatrician for advice.

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  1. Carter KA, Hathaway NE, Lettieri CF. Common sleep disorders in children. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Mar 1;89(5):368-377. PMID:24695508

  2. Fernandez-Mendoza J, Puzino K, Qureshi M, et al. Developmental trajectories of insomnia and risk of internalizing disorders in young adulthood. Sleep. 2021;44(Supplement_2):A131-A131. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsab072.326

  3. Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med. 2016 Jun 15;12(6):785-6. doi:10.5664/jcsm.5866